Monday, March 12, 2007

The Basics: What is an Intranet

It's like the Internet... only smaller and much more private. Here are steps for setting up an Intranet.

The Internet had made the sharing of data and other information between businesses, the customers and partners extremely easy, even if the users are located across great distances. Likewise, the navigation of the World Wide Web has been readily streamlined in such a way that information can be retrieved quickly, and requires little installed software beyond a Web browser. However, the downside of the Internet is that this information is also available in such a way that it can be found and accessed by other users, as well.

Intranet: a private Internet

A closed version of the Internet is an “Intranet,” which is a private, or at least semi-private computer network. It relies on the basic Internet protocols (those unique addresses that every computer online has), as well as the same type of network connectivity between machines. But unlike a basic local area network (LAN), an Intranet doesn't require that all the computers on this network to be within the same room or building. As with the Internet, the network can rely on the public telecommunication system to connect distant computers together.

The difference is that this semi-closed network is basically protected by firewalls or other encryption, making it like an exclusive club. This is perfect for a business that has information that it wants employees or partners to see, but not any one else. Others can try to access it, but without the right password or other protocol, access is denied.

“An Intranet is used to convey information,” says Charles Kolody, an analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass. research firm. He says that an Intranet is ideal for any company that wants to have a single point where employees can get information about the company. Information about training, benefits, products, or customers can be deployed on the company's Intranet, but that information will be protected from outsiders.

Unlike a LAN, an Intranet is also about more than merely accessing another computer's desktop or hard disc drives for file and print sharing. Intranets typically use a Web-styled browser, but also support other features such as FTP sites and e-mail for the sharing of information and communication with other users.

"An Intranet helps to centralize and organize data in one place, so employees can quickly and easily locate, share and contribute timely information," says Carolyn Douglas of SQBox Solutions, founder of Intranet Connections, an Intranet software maker from North Vancouver, British Columbia. “One of the more powerful features of an Intranet is the ability to collaborate with other employees and obtain important corporate data from one central source."

In some ways, an early Intranet was America Online. Users had to dial into a server PC that then connected to a larger network. Today's Intranets are also more advanced, and with the Internet however, you can connect to an Intranet through your existing connections, and possibly any outside computer. The downside to Intranets that are accessible through the Internet is that they are susceptible to hackers, who can attempt to access one point and thus gain access to the entire network.

Benefits of an Intranet

The main goal of an Intranet is to allow a company to share information among employees or partners, but it can also limit access to the outside world. Sometimes access to the Web is restricted so that workers don't spend a time surfing Web sites that have no relation to their work. For a small business, there are many benefits of an Intranet:

* Greater access for all employees, especially for a small or medium-sized business that must rely on the quick sharing of information between multiple offices or locations. This provides faster and easier access to more accurate company information.

* Ease of use for employees, because existing Web browsers can be used to navigate the Intranet. This reduces the need to install specialized programs in many cases, and further requires little additional training of applications.

* Ease of shared data, reducing the need for printouts or other hardcopies.

* Protection of sensitive material, as users log in to a closed network and data does not have to be sent out to users in different offices or those working remotely. Instead the data is access by the individual, thus limiting the chances that a person outside the company might access it.

* Updated information can be available to all users at the same time.