Cheap & efficient intranets flourish
Users around the globe discover magic data access formula
Encouraged by low cost, ease of use, short development cycles, and the utilization of existing hardware and network infrastructure, users in the US and Europe -- and to a lesser degree in Asia -- are rapidly deploying intranets in an effort to streamline internal communications. (1,700 words)
They are easy to use, easy to build, cost effective, immediate, and don't have strings attached.
In a rapidly escalating phenomenon not limited to the US, users around the globe are discovering a new magic formula for data access and communications: intranets linking PC users inside an organization via existing networks and World Wide Web software.
Intranet offerings worldwide range from online phone and mail directories, to documentation of company policies and procedures, to purchasing health benefits and ordering office supplies. (See the "Intranet examples from the globe" sidebar for more details.)
Although analysts warn of hidden costs and management burdens, the degree of acceptance intranets have gained in a short time among users in an industry notorious for hype and exaggerations is surprising.
Whether it is BMW AG in Munich, Fujitsu Ltd. in Tokyo, Credit Lyonnais in Paris, or Boeing in Seattle, managers in charge of intranets have difficulties identifying disadvantages of the technology.
"From employees to top management, the response to intranets is very positive," said Werner Schwaiger, data processing specialist at BMW, which last December started deploying its first intranets.
"I think this is the first time in the history of data processing that a new technology gains that degree of acceptance," Schwaiger said.
One key advantage of intranets cited by users east and west is the short development cycle required to roll out an application.
While applications developed for host environments often required weeks or months of development time, Web applications take days, sometimes hours, users say. "The development of Web applications is faster by an order of magnitude," according to Schwaiger.
Web development by nature is cross platform and eliminates recompiling and tweaking of applications for use on various hardware platforms and operating systems, users say. In addition, Web applications developed for external use can be easily modified to be used internally, or vice versa, according to user's needs.
"With an intranet and a Netscape browser, whatever the system each department uses, everyone can access [information]," said Paul Arvis, project manager at Credit Lyonnais, in Paris. The French bank last September started distributing internal reports prepared by the company's research department to employees on its Web server.
Besides shorter development times, drastically reduced development cost will be a blessing for Industry Canada, the country's national Department of Commerce, which with its budget slashed from $1.2 billion annually to $450 million, is looking to intranets to keep costs down.
"Users will be able to get human resource information, financial manuals, policies, job listings and access to the library system," said John Desborough, manager of electronic Internet publishing for the Strategic Information Branch of Industry Canada.
Installing Web browsers on existing desktops to give employees access to a company's Web server requires little time and little money, since some Web software is free, IS managers note.
"The Web is something that is both easy to set up and use," said Ravi Chandran, systems manager of the Computer Center at The National University of Singapore. "With the intranet, all you need to do is go to the Internet, download the Web browser, and give the address to the users," he said.
Intranets also eliminate dependency on paper, keep employees informed on a timely basis, enhance internal exchange among employees and make collaborative work across time zones a reality, users say.
"By eliminating paper systems, I have really seen an increase in the amount of communications between employees," said John Stevens, database administrator, at Boeing in Seattle, Washington. "We are implementing tons of intranets, probably in the hundreds," he added.
"We can have many engineers working together world-wide, in different time zones and countries," agreed Robert Tharp, Network Engineer, at NASA's Internet Division. "NASA uses intranets in planning for large projects. The project manager keeps all the information on a server and different scientists and engineers are allowed access to different parts of that information," he said.
But adapting an internal Web server that presents information to employees in different cultures is a sensitive task, requiring advanced planning. "We had a lot of discussion in the company on just how and what information should be shared," said John Swartzendruber, information consultant with Eli Lilly & Company, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. "Previously things that might not have been issues have suddenly become issues because everyone can see everything now. You have to think twice because you really are in a global environment, you can't think locally any more," he said.
Intranet? Not here!
But not everyone is greeting intranets with wide-open arms. At this point companies in the Asia Pacific region are more reluctant than companies in Europe and the US when its comes to implementation of intranets.
"It's hard to convince some old-style executives, and even some marketing people, of the benefits and potential of new technologies [like the Internet]," said Andrew Lu, IT manager at San Miguel Brewing International in Hong Kong, who someday hopes to set up an intranet, but needs to first sell the idea to the company's management.
But the reluctance might be a blessing in disguise. As has been the case with client/server systems, which got started in Silicon Valley and are trickling eastward, Asian users may be able to sidestep potholes that held up their Western counterparts, analysts said.
"The Internet took off very rapidly in short period of time so I think intranets will be another big thing in Japan," said Kazumasa Nishioka, managing director of Tohmatsu & Deloitte Consulting.
To be sure, intranets can already be found in Asia, mostly among IT companies and research institutions. For Tokyo's Fujitsu Ltd., a corporate-wide intranet helps coordinate the vast herd of subsidiaries and affiliated companies under the company umbrella. While cross-town rival NEC Corp. has a roughly 15,000-user intranet in its computers and communications division,
NTUC Income Insurance Co-operative in Singapore is providing data on its Web pages that only its staff can access and very soon it will be the only way in which its agents can connect and communicate with the rest of the office, said Bernard Chew, manager of strategic planning.
Security an issue
While management in Asia Pacific have yet to buy into the concept of intranets, only security concerns and a lack of knowledgeable Webmasters are slowing down the spread of intranets in Europe and the US.
Because Web technology is so new, companies have to build up in-house Web development and management expertise, IS managers say. To build that expertise, companies such as BMW are now retraining some of their mainframe developers, who generally welcome the opportunity to delve into new and forward looking technologies.
But intranet management remains a hurdle right now. "One drawback I see to the intranet solution is the amount of maintenance it takes to keep it up and running," said Boeing's Stevens. "It's more complex for our network administrators than the systems they already know. They are having to learn all this new Web server maintenance from scratch," he said.
Other IS managers agree.
"Our network administrators didn't have a lot of Unix and Internet networking experience, so the work load was initially really heavy," said Randy Jew, Network Specialist, at Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Cupertino, CA.
But maintaining an intranet can also be less complicated than administering most other desktop software, other IS managers say.
"You don't have to worry about software distribution, version control and keeping software up to date," said Willi Weiers, manager of Post AG's systems technology center in Darmstadt, Germany. "With intranets you have centralized management and administration and it is easy to keep information up to date," he said. Post AG, Germany's national postal service, this month will deploy an information system that links staff using Web browsers to a Software AG Adabas D database management system, via an interface developed with the Adabas D WebAgent.
Security of intranets also remains a great concern to users worldwide. "Confidentiality is a problem for the moment and I don't think fire walls are truly infallible," said Credit Lyonnais's Arvis.
"We are cutting our teeth on new ideas on how to use internal networks, but until security becomes much better, we can't risk putting government and personal medical information on our intranets," said NASA's Tharp.
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Here are some examples of how businesses around the world are making use of intranets:
--by Torsten Busse, IDG News Service Munich bureau
About the author
Reported by IDG News Staff around the world with Rebecca Sykes and Sari Kalin in Boston, Elinor Mills and Kristi Essick in San Francisco, Joanne Taffee in Paris, Rob Guth in Japan, Nial McKay in London. ComputerWorld Singapore and ComputerWorld Hong Kong also contributed to this report.