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 home page" has become the new pickup line of the 90s. If we go beyond the hype, are there real business reasons for making use of the web? And do you need a phalanx of techno-geeks to make it work, or is possible to put together something worthwhile with a minimum of staff and technical know-how? 1. First, what is the web? For those of you that have been napping over the summer, the web is part highway billboard, part personal ad, and part vanity publishing. The web itself is hard to really define: it comprises an ever-growing (one count has over 25,000) number of servers that provide all kinds of information, including weather maps, up-to-the-minute sports statistics and corporate product literature. There are three reasons for the attraction and popularity of the web. First off, web servers contain both text and non-text items: recorded speech, graphics, and even video clips are 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 began offering a personal web page to its millions of customers in May, and other on-line services have followed. Finally, each web server contains information that can be cross-linked to others around the world or just inside a corporation. If these links are designed correctly, "all of your information can be indexed and retrieved saving significant time, regardless of whether the information is centralized or distributed across many servers," said Mary Morris, a noted web consultant and president of Finesse Liveware (Mountain View, Calif. 415/967-6338). Morris is author of one of the better web how-to books called "HTML for Fun and Profit" (Prentice Hall/SunSoft Press) With all the hype, it is easy to oversell the web. "Web servers are plagued with the teenage sex syndrome, 'Everyone is interested in it, but they don't know what to do,'" said Bryan Bredehoeft, who is a senior marketing Information Systems consultant for Kraft Foods, Inc. in Glenview, Ill. (708 646-2004). He built his own web server that includes internal newsletters along with product documentation and other information. The web server is only one half of the equation, however. The other part is called a web browser, which runs on your own desktop computer and allows you to look at the content stored on any web server that you can connect to either on your internal corporate network or on the wild and wooly Internet. Not all browsers can view graphical content, and some web servers have added their own enhancements that don't work with other browsers. But these are mostly nuisances. The most popular browser is NetScape Communication's Navigator (Mountain View, Calif. 415 254 1900) which comes in versions for Windows PCs, Macintoshes, and Unix workstations. Members of America Online and Prodigy can also browse the web with a minimum of fuss and bother, using tools supplied by those service providers that run on Windows PCs (and soon TK? Macintoshes). An obvious use of the web is as a very cost-effective means of spreading the word on your corporate activities, both inside and outside your organization. "The web can provide a paperless or at least far less paper-intensive company. The cost savings in paper alone is phenomenal," said Morris. "The savings in human time is moderate now but growing significantly every month." Government agencies and other information mother-lodes are ripe for web sites: "The web servers we've done at various government agencies are intended for internal forms distribution, data collection, and data information and dissemination within those agencies," says Jim Southworth, Manager Communications Group, F.C. Business Systems, Inc., Falls Church, Va. (703 578-5898). Southworth has installed several internal web servers for federal government agencies along with private businesses. He mentions other applications that are perfect for web servers: "phone directories, directions to the office or other business sites, and even internal company newsletters." Even some forward-thinking publishers are getting into the act. Morris mentioned her experience as an author for SunSoft Press. Their cost of producing and printing 10,000 hard copy catalogs averaged around $12,000, whereas the design and installment of the first web-based catalog cost only $5,000 and included much more information. The web-based information is now responsible for about ten percent of the overall sales on some titles. But there are other reasons for producing a web site: "Our customers are succeeding on the whole using their web sites to sell more product, support customers, entertain, create interest or extend their communications reach," says Andrew Fry, co-founder of FreeRange Media, Seattle, Wash. (206 340-9305), an Internet production company which has put up over 30 web sites for clients such as Time Warner, Macmillian, Zenith Data Systems and others. He has written "How to Publish on the Internet" (Warner Books) and has produced Internet training materials such as seminars and videos. 2. Should you rent or buy your web server? Your first decision should be whether to own your own web server or rent time on somebody else's. Just as the American dream is to own your own home, in Cyberspace many people initially think they should aspire to own their own web site. However, renting is a very viable option, especially for those corporations that don't have a great deal of Unix (or other advanced networking) expertise, who aren't yet connected to the Internet (and don't necessarily want to be), or haven't developed an email culture. If you fit one or more of these situations, you should rent your web server. Many web providers also offer design consulting and other services so that the finished web page will be just as attractive as any on the Internet. "If you go out of house and contract for a black box, there are at least a half a dozen service providers that will give you your own web pages. You can write a check and make the problem go away," says Steve Ruegnitz, a First VP in the Architecture Department at Lehman Bros. in Jersey City, NJ. (201 TK) One of the best ways to learn about web-based design principles is to use it. "The link between two bits of information can also be information in itself. The best practices are still being developed as far as elegance and innovation in web designs. I've learned a lot just by finding web pages I like and examining their source code, as well as considering what it is about the overall layout of pages that I find pleasing," said Dennis Runkle, an IT project leader at BP America, Cleveland, Ohio, (216 586-3774). "Of course, there are plenty of examples of the medium obscuring the message as well." "My advice is to rent, don't buy space on the web. Even though I have the technical bandwidth to build my own web server (and can get lots of hardware and software for free), I chose to focus my resources on working up the content and not spend precious time with developing the plumbing," says Cheryl Currid, who runs a hi-tech technical consulting firm called Currid & Co. in Houston, Tex. (713 789-5995) Her firm uses NeoSoft, a local Houston-based provider. "They have all the servers, the high speed data communications lines, the data center controls -- we just drop our files in the appropriate place and voila we are there!" 3. Do you need to put your web servers on the Internet? Web servers can either be private or public: internal to a corporate network and visible only to employees for the former, or attached to the global Internet and available to anyone who happens by your little piece of cyber-real estate if the latter. The choice is largely dictated by the kinds of information you want to make available, and whether you are already connected to the Internet. Many corporations start out their web efforts with internal servers first, and then decide what to make available to the public. One disadvantage to running an internal server is that you have to own it and support it. "Having an internal web server in our company has made it easy to provide in-depth documentation for specific requirements that are not for general public or client consumption," said Southworth. "We need both internal and external web servers: there are some other areas of documentation such as our office procedures manual that have no use outside our organization," said Howard Gilbert, Senior Research Programmer, Yale University, New Haven, Conn. (203 432-6608). Gilbert has put up several web servers using NT, OS/2, and Unix supporting a variety of external and internal users. Before you make your web server available to the general public, you should first take some time to understand the culture of the Internet. "Maintaining visibility and inspiring respect and a good reputation for your company on the Internet will go much farther towards generating business than a poorly placed web page sponsorship," said Morris. She recommends what she calls an Internet Evangelist to get things going. "This would be a knowledgeable person that is a frequent contributor on various newsgroups and becomes an established net.personality in their area of focus. By having that person/people interact with email and newsgroups, the people themselves build an image for themselves and their company," said Morris. 4. What kinds of skills and resources will be required to maintain a web server? The answer to this question depends on whether you buy your own servers or rent. Keeping up a web site involves constant change: adding new content, revising links to other sites, and developing new ways to search the information that you have on your web server. After all, if this information was static, you probably would be better off just printing it on paper. Renting here has some obvious advantages: "Anyone with word processing knowledge and a few hours Internet training can prepare web pages. The tools are becoming that easy," says Bredehoeft. Ruegnitz from Lehman agrees: "Updating a web site requires technical writing, not computing, skills." If you decide to buy a server, there are two separate sets of skills required. "The challenge is to distinguish the maintenance of content from the maintenance of the system or the server. People should be able to mount simple documents without much more skill than running Microsoft Word. But for anything more than simple documents, you need a real web programmer," said Gilbert. "The average user can create and publish documents on the web -- and the technical expertise required is diminishing daily," said Morris. Maintaining a web server isn't that difficult, provided you already have a staff in place to maintain other network resources such as file and print servers and the data communications that connect them. "Once a web server is up and running, it can be maintained by a normal LAN administrator who is usually both Novell and Unix trained and skilled. Overall, the amount of maintenance or troubleshooting required has been very minimal," said Southworth. "We have one of our MIS personnel assigned to maintaining the system, with one or two people from marketing and technical support assigned to maintaining those areas of the external server," said Peter Shulkin, director of MIS for Dragon Systems, Inc. in Newton, Mass. (617 965 5200), who has installed both an internal and external web server in his software firm. "The prototype server and news feed processing required a few days of my time to set up, but little beyond that during the test. For an ongoing system I could see the need for someone with strong skills in design," said Runkle. The best advice is to try a pilot project with minimal funding. "Getting an internal web server up and running was very straightfoward. Our first one was done on shoestring, and now web servers are taking off like wildfire around the company," said Ruegnitz. 5. If you decide to buy, what hardware and software is required for a web sever? The real issue is how to choose the most appropriate server hardware and software for your web site. Our experts found it relatively easy to pick the right combination, once they had figured out their applications. In most cases, expedience dictated their choice of hardware. There are two main camps: those that favor Unix-based systems, and those that avoid them. "The choice of Windows NT as a server was to simplify the process of document maintenance by people in the organization. If most people run Windows on their desktop, and if they already have shared directories on NT machines as departmental servers, then it is relatively simple for them to use an NT web server," said Gilbert. "As far as server platforms go, we build on the customer's platform of choice," said Fry. Morris agrees: "I would use whatever web server is most efficient for the cost." She has one caveat, however: "My advice is to use a supported, commercial web server instead of shareware. Shareware products are easily available on the Internet, and this makes them more vulnerable to security problems." "The choices of the Mac for our internal server running MacHTTP (from Biap Systems, Houston, TX) were due to ready availability and ease of implementation. Based on what I've seen of the messages in the Usenet newsgroups, it would still be my choice," said Runkle. Others suggest (Morse Telecommunications' Slackware, Long Beach, NY 516-889-8500) Linux, a low-cost version of Unix that runs on Intel computers, as a perfect web server. "Linux is a very cost-effective, efficient, multi-user platform. The 486 is a reliable, well tested system that should require a minimum of service," said Shulkin. 6. If this sounds like too much trouble, maybe you should use a consultant? Much depends on the kind of server you want to present to the outside world, and whether you have the skills in-house to design the pages and carry out the necessary programming. F.C. Business Systems, for example, has individuals "who are responsible for software generation/configuration, communications connectivity issues, initial web page design, and graphics, animation (in a few cases), and content generation," according to Southworth. Some consultants do more than just put together the hardware and software. "We also provide training services, so in-house personnel can revise and update basic content on their own," said Fry. "A lot of the current web consultants emphasize their 'creative' aspects. I wouldn't use this as a deciding factor," says Morris. "Anyone who says that they can do good commercials just emphasizes that they don't yet understand the medium." 7. What does it cost to put a web server together? While actual mileage varies tremendously, most of our experts used existing equipment to keep costs low. "Our web server was done because the machine was already there. It doesn't really cost much if you already have an Internet connection for other purposes," says Gilbert. Morris agrees: "Costs are minimal, especially if you already have the hardware that can support the additional web functions." However, the real costs come when your web site becomes popular, and you need to purchase additional bandwidth to move information out of your server and over the Internet. The more popular sites require faster connections to the Internet, and of course, the extra speed costs more. (If your web server is strictly for internal uses, this isn't an issue, of course.) "Accessing your web server can completely saturate your entire Internet link at the busiest times. To plan for our own access needs, we doubled the minimum amount of Internet bandwidth we obtained initially to allow any or even a small usage of our web server," said Southworth. Shulkin agrees: "We are increasing our bandwidth to at least a 384 kilobyte line to handle a better connection to the Internet. That will end up running around $28,000 annually." One way to plan is recommended by Southworth: "It would be our recommendation that a potential web server site consider what would happen if every port presently being used for Internet access becomes active with web server access." Sidebar: Check out our sources. Interested in taking a look at some web sites? Here are a few of those created by our sources interviewed for our story: Mary Morris helped create the server for Auspex Systems, Mountain View Calif. http://www.auspex.com. Jim Southwirth's company's server is http://www.fcbs.com. Andrew Fry's work can be found at http://www.freerange.com. Currid & Co. can be found at http://www.neosoft.com/currid/ Howard Gilbert's PC Lube and Tune can be found at http://pclt.cis.yale.edu.