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Creating Private Intranets: Challenges and Prospects for IS

A white paper for Attachmate Corp.

by David Strom

David Strom, Inc.
November 16, 1995

N.B. While I wrote this paper a while ago, it is still relevant. If you'd like to read some of my recommended books on Internet and Intranet technologies and business practices, go to this page.

These days the Internet is everywhere: ads for au courant clothing on bus shelters, television programs, and even underwear have their own addresses on the World-Wide Web, the most popular of Internet services. "What's your URL?" (Uniform Resource Locator, or one's place in cyberspace) has become the new pickup line for the 90s. With all this attention, it seems as if the Internet has become the only topic for computing professionals these days.

However, this focus may be misplaced: it is the Intranet, the internal internet, that is the key information technology revolution for the remainder of this century. This white paper will describe the rise of corporate intranets, provide description of some of their key features, and offer advice about how to manage the transition from mostly SNA networks. We will also highlight some key Intranet enabling technologies from Attachmate and others.

A. Tracking the rise of the Intranet

The term Intranet is just now coming into common acceptance, although industry pundits have been writing about the idea since early 1995.

"Vendors say they are seeing substantial growth in corporate internets -- or intranets -- where groups ranging from individuals and product teams to corporate departments are posting web pages and installing telnet and ftp servers. This is becoming particularly true at Fortune 1000 companies.... In many cases, intranets have grown ... in ways that emulate the public, capital "I" Internet...." [Stephen Lawton, Digital News and Review, 4/24/95]

This article cites efforts at National Semiconductor and DEC to bring up libraries of information that are reachable by every desktop computer. According to the Business Research Group's report, Web Servers and the Rise of the Corporate "Intranet," DEC has over 400 internal web sites while Sun Microsystems has over 1,000. Interestingly, many of these servers were created outside of the traditional IS domain.

"Meta Group analyst Stan Lepeak estimates that three-quarters of the Web servers going up today are for internal corporate use," quoted in an editorial by Eric Lundquist in PC Week, 7/24/95. "Does the use of internal Web sites make sense in many applications? Yes. Are there still hurdles to be overcome? You bet. Should you seriously consider building your own internal Web? Absolutely." he says.

Quite an endorsement. Another analyst characterizes Intranets as "one of the great sleeper technologies," and that managing web-related content will quickly become part and parcel of future job descriptions for product line managers.

"Instead of paying service providers, businesses are installing their own servers to act as repositories for quick-changing executive information systems and as a resource for employees to peruse employee handbooks and technical articles," writes Jeanette Brown in Computer Reseller News, 8/14/95. She also mentions that the intent for these Intranets is to provide information on demand. One source in her story believes that "70 to 80 percent of web servers will be used for Intranet services."

Even one of the inventors of Ethernet has gotten the Intranet religion: "Suddenly I saw Web browsers as, yes, client/server middleware for Internet screen scraping. Multithreading and APIs are features of operating systems, and they bring us to this week's conceptual breakthrough: Web browsers are now viewed as a hot new application category.... Every [operating system] will have one,"says Bob Metcalfe in his Infoworld column, 2/27/95.

Indeed, the PC community is now fully-focused on the Intranet: within a week, Lotus, IBM, Novell, and Microsoft all announced major new products that were Intranet-related (PC Week, 10/2/95) and hundreds of vendors are preparing new Intranet product lines. Attachmate has been marketing Internet/Intranet products for the last year to large companies trying to build their own Intranets.

B. Features of the Intranet

What is the Intranet and why is it so important? The Intranet is to 1995 what the 3270 PC products were to 1985: the beginning of a new means of doing business using computers. Ten years ago, the majority of networked devices were 3278 and 3279 character-mode terminals that had coaxial cable connections to large SNA networks. Most of these devices have since been replaced by personal computers and local area networks. The Intranet portends a similar revolution in information processing. There are several distinguishing features:

Let's review each of these features in detail, and describe the trends leading up to the widespread use of the Intranet.

1. TCP/IP as both LAN and WAN transport.

Today, most enterprise networks are a mixture of many protocols: IPX, IP, SNA, and AppleTalk are perhaps the four most popular ones. Many IS shops have begun careful evaluation to replace these four with one protocol, and typically that protocol is IP. Why? IP can handle both LAN and WAN traffic well, it is supported by the majority of computing platforms from Macintoshes to Windows NT to the largest mainframes, it has a robust set of management tools and an active development community to enhance them, and it is the lingua franca of the Internet.

In the past, IP has been hampered by huge memory requirements needed to support the protocol, especially on DOS machines. With the increase of Windows-based operating systems, and with new versions this year of Windows95 and NT that offer tighter integration and better support of IP protocols, this is becoming less of an issue.

Indeed, there are almost too many IP products available these days: section E lists the various categories of products to watch. Attachmate's Irma TCP Suite has a complete set of TCP/IP applications. It includes the Netscape web browser, a set of robust host emulators that work with TCP/IP, an IP protocol stack, and other Internet-related utilities that allow file transfers and access to gopher and other tools. Other vendors offer just stacks, or a different mix of utilities, or integrated applications that handle multiple functions (such as email and Web browsing, for example).

2. HTML, SMTP and other open standards.

Speaking of lingua franca, HTML is to the Web what IP is to the Internet: the language of how information is stored in Web servers. Until recently, HTML was an open standard, not under control of any single vendor. This means that browsers (the software that runs on each client that enables viewing of web server resources) can operate similarly whether they run on Unix minicomputers or Macintosh or Intel PCs. That is a powerful incentive for corporations that have such mixtures of machines.

That degree of openness has changed with the rise of Netscape and increased competition from other vendors. The latest version of Netscape's Navigator contains features not found in any HTML standards specifications, such as independent frames within a browser window.

Why is the Web so popular? Three reasons: First off, web servers contain both text and non-text items: recorded speech, graphics, and even video clips are now becoming common. Most other Internet services are strictly for text. This means that web "pages" (as they are known) can range from the most mundane of lists to be sophisticated multimedia shows. Second, web sites (or places where information is stored) can range from the personal to the most corporate, depending on the content, author, and effort. Prodigy, Compuserve, and America Online all began offering the ability to construct one's own personal web page to their respective millions of customers this year, further popularizing the concept. And, as mentioned earlier, highly-visible companies such as Disney, ESPN, and Hershey's Chocolate have begun using the web to provide both corporate information as well as to extend the value of their identities and services.

Finally, each web server contains information that can be cross-linked to others, whether they be located around the world or just down the street. It is this ability to link, designed correctly, that enables the web its power, and its attraction, as a distributed corporate information resource.

But the web isn't the sole piece of corporate Intranets. Along with this technology are support for other standards, such as ftp servers, SMTP and other pieces that were originally developed for Unix computers and have spread throughout a corporate enterprise as IS has embraced them. Take email as an example: ten years ago, PROFS and DISSOS were the IBM heavyweight defacto standards: running on VM or MVS hosts, proprietary and closed systems. Now, those products seem like dinosaurs, and many corporations are looking towards Internet-based email as the more appropriate systems for their enterprise. This is because just about every email product now in use has Internet or SMTP-gateways, making the ability to reach anyone via email more and more likely. Most corporations either have in place or are moving towards such a common backbone to tie their own disparate email systems together, too.

Companies that haven't yet staked out their own Internet domain name at corporate.com are in peril of having their competitors grab it first.

A note on domain names.A side technical note: "domain names" are the company.com or company.org parts of each Internet site address. In years past, anyone could register whatever domain name they wished, and there are several cases of one firm trying to register the name of its competitor.

These names are registered in a central place for the entire world: at a consulting firm in suburban Virginia, called the InterNIC. Indeed, the land rush for domain names has gotten so frenzied that now the InterNIC charges an annual fee of $50 for each name, along with a setup fee for new names -- a service previously provided free of charge. Those ending in .com are supposed to be for for-profit businesses.

The InterNIC also has begun to increase the vetting process to try to prevent misrepresentation, but it is by no means staffed with lawyers or trademark specialists. Chances are good that many domain names that presently exist fall in a vast gray area here. Oftentimes the name itself is the key to finding the location of Internet resources for a company, so who knows what name takes on more importance until it becomes easier to find things on the Internet.

3. Internal corporate access only.

The chief distinction between the Intranet and the Internet is more one of semantics than actual technology: both use the same tools and techniques, protocols and products; drawing heavily on the standards of the TCP/IP world. In some cases, Intranet projects began as pilots or skunk-works efforts and have since been exposed for public view on the Internet as a major strategic computing effort. However, there are some differences between the two.

First, much corporate data is not for public consumption. Payroll, sales projections, internal discounts and client memos are all examples of information that corporations don't want broadcast over the Internet, and need to protect carefully, just as they have in the past with their IMS databases and ACF security programs. DEC's Intranet, for example, is accessible by its employees with the proper series of encryption and authentication routines.

Second, many Intranets begin with pilot projects to test out the technologies and understand the skill levels required. They quickly grew into full-time, production-quality information systems that have taken on a particularly corporation's culture and methods. Finally, many corporations want their private Intranets to have the same level of service as their existing SNA networks, and this is only possible when the networks are under complete corporate control from end to end.

One method for developing a corporate Intranet is to combine groupware applications with Internet technology. One such product is Attachmate's Open Mind, which makes use of Internet technologies such as HTML, TCP/IP, and Web browsing to augment the publishing, discussion, document management and general information sharing functions often wanted in a robust corporate Intranet. Version 2.0 of the product offers an integrated Web browser which allows users to permanently attach to and share information on external Web sites. Another example of this is Lotus' InterNotes products, which allow departments to track discussions and record conferences and other group collaborative efforts.

4. Managed by the same tools, attitudes, and procedures as VTAM networks.

The Intranet should mimic the corporate SNA backbone in terms of purpose and procedures. The only difference is that different tools are required to manage the two networks. Many of these tools originate in the Unix community that spawned the Internet, and many are being created today out of a need for more corporate control and higher levels of service required for the Intranet.

Just because the Intranet uses the same protocols and languages of the Internet doesn't mean it has to follow the same rules of operation and chaotic anything-goes environment: indeed, what many corporations are beginning to realize is that out of this chaos comes some important design considerations for building very reliable Intranets.

One example would be the ability to assign maintenance chores for particular pieces of content to different corporate departments who develop and maintain the information. Other management issues include being able to provide a local cache of popular or u seful Web sites for better performance or to ease network congestion. Other issues include providing a very granular user-based access control and reporting of usage statistics help corporate Intranet developers to fine-tune their applications.

Forthcoming products from Attachmate, such as the Internet Access server and Internet Conferencing and Publishing systems, will include some of these management tools built-in as part of the product. Other vendors are working on additional enhancements to manage changes to content and automating scripting of frequently-used routines.

C. Managing the Transition from VTAM to the Intranet

Several factors will determine whether the transition to the Intranet from VTAM and other host-based systems will be rough or smooth:

1. What is the present level of open systems expertise?

Obviously, the greater the experience with open systems, Internet-related technologies, the easier the transition to the Intranet. Corporate development groups that have gotten their hands into Unix, TCP/IP, HTML, and perl will stand a better chance than those that have yet to taste these technologies.

2. How will IP be deployed throughout the enterprise?

Corporations are faced with running a mixture of protocols over various parts of their enterprise networks. There are numerous choices, depending on a number of factors such as which protocols are required to support which legacy applications, the resources of both staff and machines that are required to support each protocol, and the cost of purchasing new hardware to handle routing or gateway functions.

First, there is the matter of running IP throughout the enterprise network. Corporate IS groups have a series of choices for getting IP services to each desktop: the direct approach, where an IP stack is loaded on every machine in the enterprise is often the best but could be expensive, particularly if a great number of DOS machines need to be replaced or reconfigured. Such an IP stack is included in a variety of Attachmate and other vendors' products, such as the Extra Personal Client product.

Another approach is to use gateway servers, such as the Firefox series of NetWare-to-IP gateways. These gateways enable desktop computers to still run their Novell-related protocols, leaving IP on the server. Attachmate's IRMA TCP Suite is another solution, and a current version has a server-based implementation where the administrator configures the software that users copy to their desktops. It also does IP tunneling. A final approach is to run multiple protocols on both desktop and servers, making use of the newer breed of operating systems such as Windows95 and NT and even Macintoshes that can handle such multiprotocol operations.

A second matter is mixing IP and SNA networks. Attachmate's white paper, TCP and SNA 3270 Integration, provides a description of the various alternatives here, and one solution is Attachmate's TCP Server which offers the ability to run IP at each desktop but still have access to the SNA host and run individual 3270 sessions directly to each desktop.

3. Can IS take the technology lead on managing web services for the corporation?

For the transition to be effective, IS professionals must take the lead and manage the web services for their enterprises. This could be difficult, particularly as the skills level required to setup a web server continues to drop. Products such as O'Reilly's Website and Compuserve's newest Internet Office Web Server are Windows-based and take little time to install and configure. Other products, such as Performance Technologies' Instant Internet offer a single-stop solution for bringing up a turnkey Internet server, complete with software and hardware.

4. Can IS set an example for maintaining web-based content and deploy appropriate training resources?

But just setting up a web server isn't the real issue: it is maintaining its content and keeping up with the changes in corporate information that is the true challenge. What is needed is the ability to deploy corporate publishing and conferencing services using the web and Intranet as the core technologies for distribution of information.

IS departments are filled with people that know how to maintain information, and should quickly assume the role of mentoring line managers throughout the enterprise. Products such as Vermeer's Front Page and new products from Attachmate that enable "out-of-the-box" Internet conferencing and publishing along with other products that handle content delivery, web publishing and document searching are also expected in this arena. New products are needed, though, to enable mainframe-based data to be easily accessible via Internet-like tool sets, and Attachmate's forthcoming products. The Internet versions of QuickApp and QuickDB will extend their current host and database development tool offerings to support the developmen t of Web applications that require access to legacy mainframe databases.

Each of these factors is critical for the success of the Intranet and for the successful involvement of IS departments in the transition from legacy mainframe systems. Note that many of these issues are not technical but political. Indeed, many of our own sources within corporate IS departments have told us that they are wrestling with these issues just as they once wrestled with the issues surrounding PC ownership and configuration. Let us all hope we have learned from the mistakes of the past ten years and not repeat them!

D. Where are the best places on the Internet to see the Intranet in action?

It is difficult to observe the rise of the Intranet in public view, since by definition it happens outside of the public Internet domain. Nevertheless, here are a few sites that are worth examining, and can give you some insight into how the Intranet is being deployed.

1. Federal Express package tracking

Federal Express has done a terrific job with developing various systems to keep track of its customers' packages no matter where these items are in the delivery process. For years, it has had mainframe systems that operators could key information in to obtain the location to customers who waited on the phone for this information. Within the past year, the company has developed its own Macintosh and Windows software that can query its mainframes, and also developed a web browser interface so that users can connect to FedEx' tracking application via the Internet. This is perhaps the best example of the rise of an Intranet application; since the tracking application was originally developed for FedEx's private use and now has "gone public" and become a strategic information resource for the company. The tracking application still resides on FedEx's mainframes, but now any customer with an web browser and Internet access (or a PC and a modem) can do the query themselves.

2. US Postal Service zip code search form

Our postal service has never been known for being on the cutting edge for its deployment of technology. Here is a good example of how they took another existing mainframe system, zip code locators, and developed a web interface so that anyone can key in an address and receive a zip code. Before, one would have to either call the post office via the telephone or go to an large printed encyclopedia of zip codes. Now, access is as easy as typing in a form on the web.

3. PartNet parts locator service

This is a new company that is trying to break into the very lucrative market for physical parts distribution. You use the web to query its databases of parts distributors to find the picture and mechanical specifications of the part you are interested in. Again, an excellent example of how to make use of the Intranet technologies for establishing an entire new business.

E. Key Intranet technologies to watch

Our final section of our analysis of the Intranet includes our list of key technologies that are worth examining. There are several groups of products that any IS professional should become familiar with.

1. Discussion/conferencing groupware

Attachmate Open Mind, Netscape/Collabra Share,

2. Web server creation tools

O'Reilly Website, Compuserve Internet Office Web Server

3. Web server management tools

Vermeer Front Page, Netscape Server, Attachmate Internet Access Server

4. Network management tools

Peregrine Open Administrator

5. Web content search tools

Verity, Personal Library Software PL/Web, WAIS Inc. WAISGate

6. IP on-ramp products

Frontier Cybersearch, Netmanage Chameleon, Wollongong Emissary, FTP Software Explore, Attachmate's Irma for Internet

This category is crowded and getting more so with a series of products that allow Windows and other desktops to run a suite of Internet-based applications, either over dial-up or LAN connections.

7. Turnkey Internet server products

Sun Netra, Performance Technologies Instant Internet

Note that we have not mentioned any HTML authoring tools. In our opinion, most of these products are over-rated and not truly useful as a product category. Perhaps the best HTML authoring products are one's existing word processor, as long as it can produce unformatted text. However, two products worth examining are Microsoft's Windows Word Internet Assistant and Novell's WordPerfect Internet Publisher.