Intranets: The price of popularity

Coping with intranet growth is no easy task. But with proper planning and the right tools, support for large numbers of users and integration of legacy applications can be achieved.
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Picture this: You are the senior manager of the Web program office at one of the nation's leading aerospace companies, and your firm has just merged with another key player in this highly competitive industry. You are now entering the twilight zone.


That's exactly where Graeber Jordan found himself on August 4, 1997, the day The Boeing Co. merged with McDonnell Douglas Corp. He also quickly found himself in the middle of a huge intranet integration project. Because of the merger, Boeing now has intranet connections for more than 192,000 individuals, including many on the production floor, out of a total employee roster of 234,000.

Excepting those shop floor workers who may never need or use the intranet, Jordan estimates more than 90% of the company's employees have access and use the capability today.

Indeed, intranets have become a necessity. They are the new Superglue holding organizations together and making them flourish. But intranet success has its price. IT managers are finding they must navigate with care--and expect the unexpected--when they burden existing infrastructure with new and insistent demand from a much wider base of users than ever before, not to mention when they plan to access data from any number of legacy systems. However, with good planning and the application of the right tools it's possible to domesticate this wild beast.


The Boeing Co.

The Company: Headquartered in Seattle, Boeing is the largest aerospace company in the world--as measured by total sales--and the nation's leading exporter. Boeing is the world's largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft, and the nation' s largest NASA contractor. The company had 1997 revenues of $45.8 billion.

The problem: How to integrate Boeing and its recently acquired McDonnell Douglas units and improve productivity across the company.

The solution: Develop and implement a robust, multifunction intranet.

IT infrastructure: Mixture of legacy mainframes and client/server systems, mostly in Seattle and St. Louis.

Pioneer spirit

Seattle-based Boeing designs and manufactures a wide range of commercial and military aircraft and spacecraft at locations in the United States, such as St. Louis, and at various sites in California, Europe, and Japan. The company has also been a pioneer in the application of a number of IT technologies, including CAD/CAM.

Pioneering continued with the early implementation of an intranet back in September of 1995. And Jordan was right in the thick of things. He went down the road of intranet integration, faced the monster with plan in hand, and helped to build one of the largest and most robust intranets in the world. Supporting a large-scale intranet, in Boeing's case one with at least one million accessible pages and 2,300 major Web sites, requires some 1,000 servers. So during the construction phase, planning and experience did count.

According to Jordan, Boeing has been working with the Internet since the early 1970s (when it was the Department of Defense ARPAnet). The company set up a study group in late 1994 and early 1995 that looked at business applications for Web technology. Its most significant step was setting two policies. First, Boeing decided that the Web would become the primary vehicle for communicating within the company. Second, the company determined that everyone should have equal access to the Web--it would not become a bastion of privilege. "For the time that was quite forward-looking," says Jordan.

With those policies in place, Boeing's intranet was launched with 4,000 users. Growth was fast and furious, averaging 1,000 users a week. And use it they did. With the intranet, for instance, employees worldwide now had access to video for training, internal communications, meetings (video conferencing), etc., at a mouse click. The savings in videotape replication alone amount to over $1 million a year.

Fortunately, notes Jordan, bandwidth was never an issue. Boeing's intranet only absorbs about 10% of its total network bandwidth. The company is currently moving from a shared environment to a switched environment, and it uses fiber to the closet and fiber to the desktop when necessary. Jordan cites the company's experience with packet switching Internet technology and the fact that the internal network was already built to be tough enough to handle engineering uses associated with building complex and large-scale systems, often with 3D solid modeling. "I myself normally use 10MB per second Ethernet, but if I need 100MB per second that's no problem," says Jordan, since a fiber backbone goes to every floor of every building.

Coming together

Bringing legacy systems and the intranet together was a different story, though. Jordan says the company still is a heavy user of mainframes and has transitioned access to those resources on an application-by-application basis. "We haven't used any one technique" to provide access to legacy systems, he says. For instance, to access one set of mainframe data IS built an Oracle server as a front-end. In other cases, they simply deployed "screen scrapers"--browser-based 3270 terminal emulators. "We looked at what the applications were and what the database looked like, and tried to figure out the most efficient way of hooking them up," he continues. Basically, Boeing was looking for "the easiest way and the cheapest way to make legacy data viewable with a Web browser," he says, "taking into account the architecture of each application."

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