intranet–gaining edge

In the last few columns we looked at the
application potential of intranet and the relationship between the Internet, intranet, and
extranet. In this column we elaborate on the details of the intranet.

An intranet is a network that connects
multiple internal networks using Internet technology. In some cases it could even be the
reengineering of internal MIS applications using Internet technology. The greatest asset
of the Internet is its free access to everyone in the world using a simple and intuitive
interface generally known as the browser.

The browser could be Internet Explorer from
Microsoft or Navigator/Communicator from Netscape Communications. The browser software is
available on almost every hardware and software platform, namely, Intel-based PCs, Power
PC-based systems, Sun SPARC-based systems, IBM AS/400, Apple Mac, or Digital VAX. The
software platform could be the Mac OS, MS Windows 3.1, MS Win95, Unix workstation running
X11, or IBM OS/400.

The beauty of browsers is their consistency
across the entire family of hardware and software platforms. With the technology of the
‘plug-in’, browsers can fire an application like MS Word, MS Excel, or MS PowerPoint to
enable an Internet user to view MS Word, MS Excel, or MS PowerPoint files. Graphic images
such as GIF files, or JPEG files can be displayed online. Audio files such as WAV, RA
(Real Audio), or AU (Audio) files can be played if the desktop is equipped with a sound
card to play the sound files. Movie files such as AVI, MPEG, or MOV files can be played
from inside the browser window. More sophisticated use of browsers include the display of
digital movies such as Macromedia Director Movies, AutoCAD drawings, SPSS statistical
results, Adobe portable document PDF files etc. Such richness contributes to the emergence
of the browser as a universal interface to view millions of multimedia documents available
over WWW.

What makes the intranet more useful is its
ability to run interactive applications. Many applications in the corporate world demand a
form interface, a database lookup, and a report-based output. Traditionally data entry
software, middleware, and report writers used to meet these demands. In a large
installation, with hundreds, if not thousands of desktop computers, the installation,
management, and support of these three categories of software lead to significant costs.
The recent interest in minimizing the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) announced by Intel
through its TCO initiative or the Zero Administration initiative (ZAD) from Microsoft
address these issues. Using a browser-based interface to replace these three components,
namely, data entry software, middleware, and report writer software, obviously makes
sense.
What is striking about the intranet approach is the use of open standards such as HTML and
HTTP. The use of these leads to savings in investments in any additional software on the
desktop. In addition, it frees the network administrator from the difficult job of
installing and maintaining many copies of the client software on individual desktop
machine.

In fact, intranet-based applications go
beyond data entry, database lookup, and report generations phases. Since the result itself
is presented using HTML (including dynamic HTML) the results could link to further
processes. For example, in the case of IIM Bangalore Library access, one cannot only
browse the Library content but also check for the availability of the book issue. If a
book has been issued out to a user the result will not only provide this information, but
can also be programmed to directly provide a link to the user’s email address. Thanks to
HTML, by clicking on the hyperlink to the user’s email address, another user, urgently in
need of that particular book can send an email requesting for the particular book with a
single mouse click.

The next stage of the intranet application
is to provide security feature limiting access to authorized users having access
privileges. Security on intranet is addressed at many levels. A user ID, password
combination can limit access to a select part of the web pages. A data encryption scheme,
using secure sockets, provides for confidentiality of the contents. Similarly, a more
sophisticated firewall can manage multiple levels of access, security, and privacy. A
proxy server can provide improved performance in spite of access security through
firewall. We will look at these technologies in the next column.

DR S SADAGOPAN
is Professor, Quantitative Methods & Information Systems, IIM Bangalore
<ss@iimb.ernet.in>

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