How Intranets Works


Web Site Image Gallery Employees can access confidential information via an organization's intranet. See more Web site pictures.
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What a difference four letters make! Intranet isn't just a misspelling of Internet. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the prefix "intra-" is Latin for "within." Which makes sense because an intranet works exactly like the Internet, except it's a network confined within a company, school, government or organization.

For example, HowStuffWorks.com is a Web site hosted by a Web server connected to the Internet. Anyone in the world with Internet access can visit HowStuffWorks.com and read articles like this one.

Let's pretend that the employees of HowStuffWorks use another Web site called HSWIntranet.com to post events on a community calendar, read messages from founder Marshall Brain and access the company phone directory. HSWIntranet is hosted on a Web server located in the HowStuffWorks headquarters in Atlanta and is connected only to the company's local area network (LAN). Only employees connected to the LAN via a special network password can access the company intranet. HSWIntranet.com isn't an Internet site; it's an intranet site.

Both the Internet and an intranet operate over a communications standard called TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol) that connects hosts to users over a network. Both the Internet and an intranet use Web pages to display information on users' computers. Therefore, they both use Web programming languages like HTML, Java, Flash and XML to build Web pages with text, images, audio and video.

Some companies and organizations allow business partners and clients to access their intranet sites from remote locations outside of the company LAN. These extensions of the intranet are called extranets.

In this HowStuffWorks article, we'll go over the chief advantages of using an intranet, particularly for small and large businesses. Then we'll explain how to plan and develop an intranet. And finally we'll provide the technical specs for setting up an intranet.

Let's start with the advantages of using an intranet.

Intranet Benefits

Intranet sites allow employees access to confidential information.
Intranet sites allow employees access to confidential information.
Image courtesy of Newport News Public Schools

The chief advantage of using an intranet for a small or large business is that they're cheap to implement and run, greatly increasing the return on investment (ROI) [source: Net Access]. In the modern office, most computers are already equipped to connect to the Internet and browse the Web. With an intranet, there's no need to buy new equipment for the end user or significantly restructure the corporate network. The only thing that needs to be purchased and configured is a Web server (hardware and software) to host the intranet. And the most popular Web server software, Apache, is free.

Another benefit of using an intranet is improved information sharing and collaboration across an organization [source: Digital Web Magazine]. Let's use the example of a sales department in a software company. Instead of each salesman maintaining his own sales lead lists and saving them on his own computer, all sales leads can be posted and tracked on a central Web site on the corporate intranet [source: Intranet Roadmap]. Salesmen can post and share product pitch scripts, training videos and industry reports. Instead of sending hundreds of different group e-mails, all of the information lives at one central location. This saves time, which in turn saves money.

Intranets become even more powerful when they're linked to corporate databases. Suddenly, all of the information on the corporate network is searchable and accessible through a simple Web interface. This can be another money saver for a company. Instead of buying and licensing software for each and every desktop in the office, the company can switch to Web-based applications that are accessed through a Web browser [source: Devware]. Peoplesoft is a Web-based application that can be hosted on a corporate intranet. Human resources can maintain employee records and customer service reps can track help requests all through an intranet Web site.

Another financial benefit of intranets is that they're scaleable and flexible [source: Intranet Roadmap]. A small company can turn a simple desktop PC into a Web server, build some basic HTML Web pages and be up and running at practically no extra cost. As the company grows, it can invest in a more robust Web server, hire a Web developer to design more dynamic intranet Web pages and make more and more information and software available online.

Beyond their tangible, financial benefits, intranets can also help develop and reinforce the corporate culture of a business [source: Intranet Roadmap]. Executives can maintain blogs on the company intranet site alerting employees to new and exciting developments. Employee relations specialists can post newsletters, maintain event calendars and organize volunteer groups through the intranet site. And employees themselves can start blogs and build Wikis that explain every facet of corporate life.

For companies that also maintain well-trafficked, dynamic Internet Web sites, the corporate intranet Web site can be a place to test out new ideas and emerging Web 2.0 features [source: Information Week]. Maybe a company is toying with the idea of launching its own online social network or Internet television channel. All of the technical quirks and usability issues can be worked out on the in-house intranet site so that everything runs smoothly when the new features are unveiled to the public.

Now that we've covered some of the advantages of using an intranet, let's talk about how an organization plans for and develops its intranet.

Intranet Development

A team can develop a corporate intranet site.
A team can develop a corporate intranet site.
Sam Roberts/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When planning an intranet, the most important thing is that somebody needs to be in charge [source: Intranet Roadmap]. Depending on the organization's size, this could be one employee or a team of employees. This individual or intranet team will determine what content is published on the intranet and what technology will be used in the process.

Once the intranet team is assembled, they have to sit down and consider many important questions that will dictate the size, cost and functionality of the intranet. Here are some general considerations when planning an intranet:

  • Who is the intranet's primary audience? All employees? Or only certain departments?
  • What are the intranet's goals? Improved document access? Better collaboration? Cut down on printing costs?
  • How will the success of the Intranet be measured?
  • What types of documents and which corporate databases will need to be accessed?
  • What Web-based applications will be accessible from the intranet?
  • How will the site be structured? What will be on the homepage, the different main landing pages and sub-pages?
  • Will everyone be allowed to publish content to the intranet or only certain employees?
  • Who will be in charge of communicating editorial guidelines and maintaining editorial consistency?

[sources: Intranet Roadmap and HomeWorlds].

To get the intranet off the ground, the intranet team will have to address several technical considerations as well. Here are a few basic technical questions that need to be answered during the planning phase:

  • Who will be in charge of configuring and maintaining the Web server?
  • Will the server and network be administered by in-house information technology staff or by contractors?
  • What security precautions need to be in place (firewalls, security software) to limit access to the intranet?
  • How much network bandwidth will the intranet require? For example, will it host streaming audio and video, lots of graphics and photos, etc.?
  • How will new applications be tested before being added to the intranet?
  • What content management system (CMS) will be used to create and publish content?
  • How will employees be trained on the CMS?
  • Who will be the contact for technical issues/questions about the CMS?
  • How will the company back up intranet data? How does intranet data fit into the company's larger disaster recovery plan

[sources: Intranet Roadmap and Intranet Concepts].

After answering all of these important questions, the intranet team needs to come up with a proposed budget to be presented to the executives in charge. In larger organizations, these would be the chief technical officer (CTO) and/or chief information officer (CIO). Cost projections for the following items should be included in the intranet budget:

  • Web servers
  • People to administer servers (in-house or contractors)
  • Web development and design (in-house or contractors)
  • Content management system
  • Application development (software and personnel)
  • Security hardware and software
  • Long-term maintenance costs

[source: Intranet Roadmap].

Once the budget is approved, you're ready to set up your intranet. In the next section, we'll go over the technological basics of setting up a safe and effective intranet.

Setting up an Intranet

Routers are needed to give employeers access to the intranet.
Routers are needed to give employeers access to the intranet.
Image courtesy of Netgear

Setting up a secure and reliable intranet requires these components:

  • Web server (hardware and software)
  • Networked PCs
  • Firewall hardware and software
  • Content Management Software
  • Other Application software

[source: University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Sciences].

A Web server is two things: hardware and software. The hardware you use for an intranet Web server depends on the intranet's size, the content to be published and the number of people accessing the intranet at any given time.

For example, if your intranet is text-only Web pages being accessed by five people, you don't need a powerful machine running your server software. If you're going to use your intranet to host streaming video to be accessed by thousands of employees at once, then you'll need a large, dedicated server or cluster of servers with significant bandwidth.

The server software handles all requests for files hosted on the server, finds the file and sends it off to the right computer. The most popular Web server software, Apache, is free. The second most popular Web server software is Microsoft Internet Information Server.

As for installing and configuring the Web server in a network, a company must first consider how critical the intranet will be for day-to-day operations. The more the intranet is used for "core business processes," the more redundancy needs to be built into the system [source: Intranet Journal].

In organizations where the intranet is a low-priority application, it's OK to throw everything in the same box: Web server, databases, applications and Web page content [source: Intranet Journal]. In companies where employees rely more heavily on the intranet for Web-based business applications, it's smart to employ a backup server or even a networked server cluster that share responsibilities. In those cases, it's also smart to host databases on separate machines so that if one server goes down, the rest can still access the databases [source: Intranet Journal].

For employees to access the intranet, their computers need to be connected to the organization's local area network (LAN). These computers also need to have Web browser software like Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari.

Firewall hardware and software both accomplish the same thing -- they're the gatekeepers. Firewalls stand between the outside Internet and the corporate intranet, monitoring all incoming and outgoing data packets for unauthorized or suspicious requests [source: Vicomsoft]. A firewall is essential for intranet security, particularly if the intranet includes extranet extensions or allows remote login from outside of the corporate LAN [source: Intranet Journal].

For creating, publishing and managing the content on the intranet, most companies use a content management system (CMS), a Web-based application that makes it easy to create standardized Web content without having to know HTML or other programming languages [source: KM Column]. The CMS can be hosted on the Web server or on a separate applications server.

Other software can be loaded onto the intranet Web server or applications server as the company sees fit. This may include a Web-based conferencing application, a project management tool or a comprehensive CRM tool like SAP or PeopleSoft.

If you don't want to worry about setting up servers and installing software, you could subscribe to a hosted intranet service where your intranet is hosted by a third-party for a monthly fee. You would access the intranet by logging into the service provider's

Now let's take a look at the future of intranets.

The Future of Intranets

Intranets allow employees to access information from a secure portal.
Intranets allow employees to access information from a secure portal.
Reza Estakhriam/Stone/Getty Images

Intranet trends follow closely on the heels of the latest Internet trends. The biggest Internet buzzword right now is Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is all about social media and user-generated content as opposed to the static, read-only nature of Web 1.0.

Many of the most trafficked Web sites are fueled by Web 2.0 principles. It explains the explosion of blogs, the pre-eminence of Wikipedia and the tremendous popularity of online social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Corporate intranets are getting an upgrade now that Net generation students are entering the workplace. The Net Generation grew up in a world steeped in communications technology. Many of them don't remember life before they had a MySpace account, and they'd be lost without their cell phones.

Net Generation employees expect their employers to think and communicate the same way they do. E-mail is just a start. They want to have their own company blogs and subscribe to RSS (Really Simple Simplification) feeds from the blogs of their bosses and coworkers. They want to help build a company Wiki and hook up with friends on a company-wide social network.

Only recently have businesses woken up to the necessity of so-called intranet 2.0 to attract and maintain talented young employees. According to a recent survey of chief information officers, only 18 percent of American businesses host blogs on their intranet and only 13 percent have launched corporate Wikis. However, 40 percent said they have such programs in the development and testing stages [source: Prescient Digital].

Corporate intranets will take on increasing importance as more and more businesses turn to Web-based applications to manage core business systems like SAP and PeopleSoft. Companies are learning that on-demand Web services are cheaper to maintain and easier to use than hosting software on their own systems. All of these Web-based applications can be bundled into the corporate intranet where they can be accessed securely with one network password.

For more information about intranets and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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