What the `Intranet' really means
A new label for not-so-new hardware and software options
What's all this new intranet stuff anyway? The fact is, it's not new technology at all. Find out what hardware and software vendors really mean when they try to sell you their latest "intranet" product. (1,700 words)
The earliest known printed reference to the term "intranet" is in the April 24, 1995 edition of Digital News & Review in a story entitled "Intranets Fuel Growth of Internet Access Tools," by Stephen Lawton. (If you know of an earlier reference please alert firstname.lastname@example.org.) As Lawton wrote 16 months ago, "In many cases, intranets have grown on the corporate side of the firewall in ways that emulate the public, capital `I' Internet, and have assumed an almost anarchistic approach. Because of the relatively low cost and readily available Web server software, almost anyone who can write in Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) can set up a Web server, analysts agree."
Vendors seem to have a different notion, and slap the term on just about anything.
The word "intranet" consists of two active ideas: "Intra," meaning "within," and "net," an abbreviation for network (in our case, a network of computers.) Together these mean a "computer network for within." Within what, you ask? Usually this means within the corporate network, but here it gets a little vague.
Most people use this word to indicate a network within the corporation. Supposedly, all the components of your network-- workstations, servers, routers, switches, hubs, modem banks, printers, applications, operating systems, and everything else that is not connected to an "outside network"-- constitute your intranet. In this case we will consider the "outside network" to be public online services and the Internet.
Many companies have offices across the country and even around the globe. Sometimes networks in different divisions and departments are separated. Others have private leased lines, Frame Relay, etc., between offices and although they have locations separated by distance, maintain the concept of an "internal" network. Still others interconnect these offices using the Internet, with separate intranets at each site.
As you read this article you will realize that the tools, applications, and equipment you use for the Internet are often a subset of the tools that you use for the intranet. This is directly related to the amount of computer work you perform on each network. In most cases, you work more on the intranet than over the Internet.
New name, same technology
Note that we indicated both hardware and software as components of the intranet. Often intranet components perform a level of distributed computing. While some request, others provide information.
Take the Web, for example. An internal, employees-only Web site is an intranet software tool for distributing information. Each Web browser requests information from nearby or faraway Web servers.
But wait, isn't that a client-server architecture? Yes, however, some journalists and marketers would have you think differently, not because of the slight difference that it uses only TCP/IP protocols and technology, but simply because the term "client-server" is old and becoming dull whereas "intranet" is brand spanking new!
Client-server technology can be implemented in any language, protocol, hardware, and so on. It is a generic term indicating that there are two components interconnected in some way that speak the same instruction set, such that one component is a requester of information while the other is a provider or source of information. For decades, TCP/IP applications have been considered client-server applications. I don't think the significance should change simply because marketers feel the need to differentiate.
It is an advancement of the technology. Saying that intranets will actually kill the client-server environment is fallacious; it is better to think of intranets as a focus of the client-server computing environment.
As I go on, you will notice the different ways vendors use the term, and learn how to process the information they present you without being blinded by marketing hocus-pocus.
What do hardware vendors mean?
Hardware vendors struggle constantly to improve their technology or differentiate their wares. Since the move away from proprietary hardware technology in the 1980s, vendors have found few ways to distinguish their products. The days of proprietary lock-in are over (with the possible exception of the AS/400). No matter what, vendors must make their products interoperable.
There is differentiation in marketing, pricing, and distribution. If you can make your hardware appear more desirable than that of a competitor, even if you sell the same technology, a slight price premium boosts profits. Marketers covet this "brand awareness."
An intranet hardware architecture primarily revolves around supporting the Internet protocols (TCP/IP). This includes IP routers, bridges, firewalls, hubs, concentrators, network interface cards, and even ATM. To build an intranet, you need network management tools such as Solaris Net Manager or HP OpenView, security management tools, TCP/IP network stacks (usually built into most operating systems these days), and computers, of course. If you built an Internet connection today you would use the same tools.
Some differences exist. It is very likely you would want a firewall in an Internet, whereas the choice is not always necessary in an intranet. A router or bridge is almost always necessary for the Internet. A small intranet could get by with an Ethernet hub. Compared to an Internet server, an intranet server would have looser configurations for access and security, application packages, system monitoring and logging, and connectivity.
Some hardware is more applicable to the intranet. Network Computers, for example, are better suited for where you have some control over each. In general, printers, scanners, and network facsimile systems, are more appropriate for intranet use.
What do software vendors mean?
Software vendors seem to have their own perception of the intranet. Intranet software uses the same protocols and applications as Internet applications. The intranet, however, is a closed and hopefully (fingers crossed) secure version of the Internet for internal computing only.
Do all intranet applications use the TCP/IP family of protocols as defined by RFCs executed by the Internet Engineering Task Force? Not exactly. Microsoft applications are also intranet applications, if you wish to believe the spin-doctors in Redmond. For the most part, Microsoft makes its own standards either by coming up with a mechanism by themselves, or by adapting another standard. Standards are "open" by Microsoft's reckoning because it publishes them. More often than not, however, you are locked into Microsoft anyway because its software is not entirely compatible with applications from other vendors.
It seems that it includes all the TCP/IP protocols in the Internet RFCs, plus stuff from Microsoft and other large vendors. Did you hear the X.500 directory and messaging system is making a big comeback? Isn't that part of the OSI family of protocols, not TCP/IP? True, but now it uses IP as well, namely the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) instead of the original X.500 Directory Access Protocol (DAP), which uses OSI's more complex Connection Oriented Network Service (CONS).
Apparently, X.500's messaging capacity is envied so much by vendors that companies have implemented their own versions. Novell calls its version NetWare Directory Services (NDS), while Microsoft uses the Open Directory Services Interface (ODSI) moniker. It is about time that a more complex directory system such as this has come into play. In the intranet, however, it is crucial to many large corporate networks as a means of unifying all the different messaging systems and often, combined with X.400, e-mail as well.
Now we have TCP/IP protocols, some vendor-specific implementations, and possibly a few of the OSI protocols as well. At least it uses one common network protocol, right? That should ease your network headaches. Nothing's worse than trying to keep IPX, IP, AppleTalk, SNA, NetBEUI, and OSI straight on your wires without interfering with each other.
On a clear day, you can see forever
Armed with this knowledge, you should feel more at ease when a salesperson contacts you about the latest intranet product. Keep in mind they are selling you the same thing they sold about four months ago with a new label and a few extra features. Have fun with the "new intranet" you probably have used for years now!
About the author
Rawn Shah is vice president of RTD Systems & Networking Inc., a Tucson, Arizona based network consultancy and integrator. Reach Rawn at email@example.com.
If you have technical problems with this magazine, contact firstname.lastname@example.org