By David W. Methvin, Executive Editor
Technologies designed for the Internet-such as Web browsers, newsgroup readers and custom applications-can just as readily be used to share information among co-workers. And setting up an intranet doesn't have to be a major production: A company intranet doesn't even require a Web server, merely a series of linked HTML pages.
For those new to HTML (hypertext markup language), I've created a small sample intranet you can use as a starting point. These files provide a model for a real-life, small-scale intranet. Once you retrieve the files, you can easily modify them by replacing our sample information with your company's data. Download these files from WinMag's Web Resource Center at http://www.winmag.com/web. (For more information on writing HTML pages, see Sites for Sore Eyes.)
If you've never set up an intranet, here's a heartening fact: You don't need to install Web server software. All you need is a Web browser.
To make your intranet pages available to everyone, locate them on a file server that company employees can access. With Windows 3.1x network clients, map a drive (for example, W:) to the directory you are using for the pages. You can use the same drive-mapping approach with Windows 95 and NT, or you can simply specify the complete server- and-filename path in UNC (universal naming convention) format.
Drive mapping is a simple procedure. If the server directory for your intranet is C:\FILES\SHARED\INTRANET\DEFAULT.HTM, for example, you might want to map C:\FILES\SHARED\INTRANET\ as W:\ at the server level. Even if you're keeping the intranet on a Windows 95 or NT server, it's best to create a share name for the intranet directory rather than mapping the entire directory on each client machine. This allows you to maintain the directories on the server end without having to remap the drive at each workstation, and you won't inadvertently grant users access to other directory files on the server's disk.
At this point, you should create a shortcut (Windows 95) or Program Manager icon (Windows 3.1x) for the home page. In our example, the path would be W:\DEFAULT.HTM. As long as a browser is associated with HTML files, it will automatically launch and load the file.
Once your intranet is up and running, you can fill your pages with information. Using whichever HTML editor you like (or just plain old Windows Notepad), create the documents you want to share. Our sample intranet files provide a good starting point.
HTML shines as a tool for organizing data and making it accessible. Each HTML page is essentially a collection of information and references on a particular topic. Those references can be pointers to other HTML files, or they can be actual files such as Word or Excel documents. Unlike Windows 95 file folders, files can be linked to two HTML pages if necessary-and you won't waste space by duplicating the data. HTML allows that kind of flexibility.
On the other hand, HTML is so flexible you could easily wind up creating an incomprehensible mess, rather than a simple and straightforward collection of data. If your intranet makes it hard to find essential information, employees won't use it. Here are a few design tips:
In most cases, you'll have information for your intranet at hand in other formats. Before you spend time converting these documents to HTML, consider linking to the native data files instead. You can configure helper applications on the client end to view the files. For example, you can create a link inside an HTML file that points to PHONELST.DOC, your company phone list. When you click on the link, the browser will launch the application you have associated with .DOC files. (There are other issues you need to consider as well-see The Dangers of Mixed Webs).
As a serverless intranet grows larger, though, its drawbacks increase as well. Since each user needs a file-server connection to the intranet directories, the server that holds the intranet files will require a license for each user in the organization, even for those who rarely access the intranet. Each user will also require the same set of related applications to run the intranet pages properly. That can become a configuration management nightmare.
A serverless intranet also can't take advantage of server applications that generate HTML documents on the fly. This is a very useful capability for database and search applications. If you're planning to use a great deal of data and you need search capabilities, for example, you should invest in a server.
Adding a server to your intranet mix will overcome the limits of serverless intranets and add many useful capabilities.
The serverless intranet offers only static Web page access. A server-based intranet allows much more: You can add electronic mail, local company newsgroups and custom applications, configuring the server according to your company's needs.
Adding Web service to your intranet enables you to use CGI (common gateway interface) programs that run on the server. Server-based CGI programs provide important advantages over the serverless workstation-based applications. Here's a list of their benefits:
If you're moving from a serverless setup to a Web server, your existing pages should work without many changes on the user's end. A file retrieved from the Web server will still be run by the associated program, for example.
One significant difference is that a Web server returns a copy of the file, instead of the original file. Although you previously could edit the "live" intranet files, you must now gain access to the file server where the intranet data is stored to do so. The local copy of the file will not be the same as the original "live" version available on the server. In a case like this, a better solution would be to find a CGI application to manage the data.
With a server, your range of available features widens beyond simple Web service. You may find that the price, features and easy administration of the additional intranet services make them a good value, especially if your support staff is already familiar with Internet-based services.
Electronic mail is probably the area most likely to overlap with an existing application. Internet and intranet mail use simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) as their standard protocol for sending messages to the mail server. Browsers such as Netscape Navigator have built-in support for sending e-mail through SMTP.
The newsgroup is an Internet staple that translates well to the intranet environment, and there's no existing equivalent application in most companies. While the author of an electronic mail message decides who should see it, corporate newsgroups let each reader subscribe to areas of interest. You could create groups for company policy changes, project updates, scheduled network downtime or even nonessential communications such as jokes. To keep the "noise" level down, you can arrange for some groups to be moderated, allowing only authorized users to post messages.
The newsgroup's greatest benefit can be reducing the amount of e-mail sent around the office. E-mail can be reserved for important communications between a few people, and not used as a broadcast medium for low-priority information. And unlike e-mail, newsgroups can act as a permanent repository for important information; new employees can subscribe to newsgroups and read old messages to come up to speed on a topic. Best of all, you can read newsgroups from within Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer.
The hardware configuration you'll need for your intranet server will depend on the services you run and the expected volume of traffic. Smaller companies or workgroups may be able to run the intranet services on the same server that provides file services, in order to reduce costs and also simplify administration.
You shouldn't maintain an intranet server on the same hardware with a public Internet server for security reasons. If outsiders break into your Internet site, they'll have access to your intranet as well.
Even if you restrict your platforms to Windows NT, your options for server software are extensive. (See Intranet Software Selections.) Microsoft currently offers Internet Information Server (IIS) as a free download from its Web site, and will bundle IIS as part of the upcoming NT 4.0 release.
If your network isn't already using the TCP/IP protocol, you may need to install it to get your intranet running. Some intranet software, including Microsoft IIS and Frontier Technologies' Intranet Genie, can use other common networking protocols such as IPX. This could save you significant amounts of trouble (and troubleshooting), allowing you to use existing network protocols instead of installing TCP/IP.
The bottom line: An intranet could well be just what your company needs. To get started building an intranet for your enterprise, determine the types of data you want to provide, the number and type of users, and the form you wish to use to present the information. If your need is simple shared data, a serverless intranet is an inexpensive and flexible choice. For companies with greater demands and aspirations, a server can provide sophisticated capabilities and features.