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The Internet, Intranets and Extranets:
Understanding the Networking of the New Networks

by Jon Leland

The Internet is such an exciting new frontier that many people tend to over-simplify it and think of it as just one thing. In fact, the original definition of the Internet is the "network of networks"; and although the 'Net continues to change daily, that definition seems to becoming more and more relevant. I think it's important to remember that the web is made up of many new media forms and these new media forms include a variety of new kinds of networks.

These days, the web is not only the Internet (which includes many new ways to communicate electronically), but also the many "threads" of the web that are extending themselves to include new kinds of networks as well. The most familiar of these for corporate users is Intranets, and there is also a less widely recognized "relative" network extensions known as an "Extranets".

These various networks are simultaneously extending and limiting online communications. They extend them because they combine the global Internet with less open and more localized networks. And they create more limited channels because, as in the case of Intranets and Extranets, access is limited to specified "audiences," thus providing more security and exclusivity.

This month, I'm going to help you better understand these options, their purposes, distinct uses, strengths and weaknesses; but first, let me put these trends in context.

An important thing to keep in mind as you are contemplating these developments (and perhaps developing your own organization's networking plans) is that the power of networking has become more than a basic technology that let's people print and share e-mail. The dynamics of networking (and, yes, of networking networks) has fundamentally changed the nature of computing.

From the profound impact of the web itself to the importance of client-server computing, the evolution of networking and the sharing of resources (both technical and human) that networks make available is changing our electronic world. Beyond all of the noise about the various forms of network computers (including Windows-based terminals, NetPC's and Web TV's), the essential fact is that our business communications (from transactions to collaborations to marketing messages) are being opened to whole new dynamics and new forms of distribution.

The implementation of these changes is a process that will happen over time, but just to underscore the theme of this column one more time: it's the companies that understand and leverage these changes most effectively who will create a Web Edge (or strategic advantage). Within the business world, especially for larger companies, this represents a cultural shift because without people's participation and understanding, the technology won't make a difference on its own. Because small and medium sized businesses are frequently more agile and open, some of you may be able to gain more of an advantage more quickly; however your needs will also vary depending on your company's size.

Just as the terms LAN (local area network) and WAN (wide area network) define the generic configurations of company networks, the terms Internet, Intranet and Extranet define the configurations of TCP protocol (or Internet-related) networks.

The Internet is the equivalent of the "Mother" network. It is the network of networks with the widest acceptance and the most open standards. It spans the globe and is used by everyone from individuals to small organizations to multi-national corporations and governments.

The term Intranet implies a boundary that is the result of the institution within which it exists. Intranets are networks that use the TCP protocol to publish internal websites and related content that is offered solely for viewing within an institution such as a corporation or university.

Extranets combine the reach and near universal accessibility of the Internet with the more focused functionality of an Intranet. Extranets make the kinds of exclusive content that would normally be available only to "internal customers" on an Intranet, available to external participants. These external users may be employees who are on the road or who work at remote locations or strategic customers who are being linked to internal projects. Like Intranets, Extranets involve a level of security, but they are unique in that they extend the boundaries of the company via the Internet.

Those are the general distinctions. Here are some more specific differences.

The Internet is a new world. The Internet is not only "The Big Picture," it also offers a global perspective. By providing connectivity to anyone with a computer and a telephone line, the Internet is the networking breakthrough of our lifetime. It includes everything from universal e-mail to transactions between individuals and between companies. Of course, this now includes commerce as well as information exchanges and new directories (such as search engines) that provide phone book-style accessibility for digital communications.

Some of the most important results of this networking revolution are new forms of marketing and outreach, new connections between customers and collaborators, new sources for news and research, and opportunities for new kinds of distribution of products (as well as of information). But because the Internet is the broadest information super-highway, it lacks some of the security and privacy that's needed for the internal workings of business organizations. Advanced features like multimedia are also more likely to be limited because most individuals are still using dial-up connections and, as a result, have very limited data bandwidth.

Intranets are new kinds of internal networks. Think of "Intra" as it is used in Intramural sports. Intranets tend to resemble the architecture of a closed-circuit video network as opposed to the Internet which is more like broadcasting in terms of its reach. Intranets are used for more private communications, connectivity among work groups and larger organizations. For example, some companies use Intranets to offer corporate services such as benefits programs and other kinds of corporate communications. Also, Intranets enable information sharing that empowers employees who might otherwise be left "out of the loop." (See "Groupware" below.)

Because of their limited geographic range, Intranets offer more bandwidth, frequently Ethernet's 10Kbps or better. As a result of this bandwidth and the "closed loop" structure, more advanced networking features such as video and multimedia, as well as more technological control, are possible. For example, a company can specify that a specific web browser and even a specific version of that browser (licensed by the company) be used on its network. This enables a consistent and more dependable user experience than is possible on the Internet. Even Internet related services such as Pointcast can be customized for a particular company and its Intranet.

Extranets are a more complex implementation of the wired world. Just because an employee is telecommuting doesn't mean she shouldn't have access to the company Intranet. Sales people on the road are just as critical to a corporation's success as those who sit behind desks. And in today's world of virtual work groups, suppliers and other vendors are frequently critical members of the team and they may need an insider's degree of access. Extranet's provide these important networking "bridges" by combining the Internet with the Intranet.

By extending the corporate network to include the Internet, team members get the best of both worlds -- mobility with exclusivity. Because of the necessary security involved, Extranets frequently require the development of custom applications. For example, in order to give a remote sales person access to corporate sales statistics, the user needs remote access to a database that cannot be made visible to the competition. Most often, for something this sensitive, encryption is involved because password protection is not sufficient.

In most cases, Extranets do not involve high bandwidth applications like video and multimedia because of the limited bandwidth of remote users who most frequently use dial up connections.

Both Intranets and Extranets enable the use of group applications commonly known as "groupware" or group software. The most famous of these applications is Lotus Notes, but there are many others including internal websites that are driven by a database engine that allows users to input information. One typical use for this kind of application is information sharing amongst a project team. Posting "project" notes and updates into a shared database saves people from the noise of a constant barrage of e-mails or memos. Even more importantly, it also allows users to seek out the information that they need when they need it. Groupware information sharing can be as simple as networking a team schedule or as sophisticated as providing access to complete set of client contact records. It any case, it's an important new work dynamic.

In a similar way to the corporate culture transition that many of us have seen in the implementations of voice mail and, more recently, e-mail, these new networks of information take different shapes in different organizations. How effectively these new forms of communication are used is a function of the corporate culture, or more simply, of people's attitudes. Unquestionably, companies and virtual teams gain leverage through these kinds of electronic collaboration. Success stories are numerous, but execution provides its own set challenges.

Stay tuned.

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