There's no question that corporate intranets have heated up from a simmer to a boil. In the early days these Web-based infrastructures provided employees with static information, but increasingly companies are choosing to use their intranets as the network over which they run mission-critical applications. Today, intranets help companies streamline and automate internal business procedures. If employees can take care of their own HR needs, for example, then the company needs fewer HR employees. Those resources can be spent on sales, marketing, and product development people.
While the tasks of information sharing, information publishing, e-mail, and document management are the primary use of intranets, applications such as accessing legacy host information, calendaring, workflow management, and providing remote access to the network are increasingly becoming part of the corporate intranet landscape.
With all of these activities readily available via an intranet, access is booming. According to a recent study by market researcher International Data Corp., of Framingham, Mass., nearly half of the respondents with 1,000 or more employees, approximately 41%, permitted intranet access to the entire company. Among companies with less than 100 employees, 84% permitted companywide intranet access.
The shift in an intranet's importance in the corporate workplace is paralleled by an increasing pressure to keep these Web-based systems well managed. "Companies are spending a lot of internal resources managing intranets," says Mike Comiskey, an analyst with IDC's Intranet Strategies research program. "A lot of content from unsanctioned, subintranet sites is beginning to pop up, and moving forward companies will need to more centrally manage" this information, he says.
As companies face this management challenge the need to find tools, either off-the-shelf or developed in-house, to help do that job has increased. A plethora of products is available; choosing the best means analyzing company systems and goals and working within those parameters. Combined with thorough planning, automating the management process saves more than time and money--it makes an intranet run smoothly.
Users in action
Arizona's Maricopa County took this lesson to heart. The County's three-year-old intranet is used by all County departments, and the County government has an aggressive rollout plan for upgrading.
Initially, the intranet was used fundamentally for sharing information such as policies, procedures, and forms. But by the intranet's second generation--it's redesigned every year or so--the County rolled out more sophisticated uses such as its homegrown, line-of-business application, Agenda Central.
Agenda Central carries out the complex board-of-supervisors' approval process, replacing a cumbersome and time-intensive paper-based system. By submitting a request to Agenda Central, which submits forms to all bodies required for approval simultaneously rather than serially, Maricopa County estimates that it shaved the time it takes for an agenda item to be routed and approved from eight weeks to about two.
The third revision focuses on customization. This upgrade has less to do with the look and feel of the interface, and more to do with delivering the appropriate content for each employee's particular job. All of the County's users will be able to personalize their interface to the intranet, referred to as the Electronic Business Center (EBC), and have certain items, such as pull-down menus, appear however they prefer.
Several collaborative and messaging benefits are also available in this redesign. Maricopa County has written a front end to Microsoft Outlook public folders to create a bulletin board system. With this system collaborative computing or information sharing can be carried out through the EBC. A comprehensive calendaring system shows all County and/or personnel events, such as hikes and major meetings. Technology tips and tricks are also available.
"We integrated EBC with Microsoft Outlook 98 so users can have EBC as their homepage and it also has an interface to a groupware client so it can show, for example, your tasks or messages," says Paul Allsing, director of Maricopa's EBC. "[Our Web site] demonstrates the Web interface can do more than simply publishing; it can do tasks through automation."
Because the County's intranet is so active--it receives approximately 1,200 visits per day and permits access to approximately 3,000 users--keeping the EBC up and running is a top priority, so the County deployed a monitoring and self-healing application. SiteScope 4.5 from Freshwater Software Inc. monitors all of the County's servers and pings for active service. In the event that a server has crashed or its performance has slowed dramatically, the software will automatically generate a page to one of the IS staff members. If that page goes unanswered, the software will automatically reboot the server.
"SiteScope allows us to be more responsive when there is a problem before we put this tool in place, we would get a call from the user asking if the site is up or if it is slow," says Allsing. "With an automated tool sitting out there pinging the site, we know quickly if there is a problem that can be detected."
The County is running Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) version 4.0 on Windows NT servers; it has a total of 30 NT-based Internet, intranet, and groupware servers. The underlying database is SQL server 6.5 and the firewall is Check Point Software Ltd.'s FireWall-1. This Web-oriented infrastructure backs up the County's goals going forward. "The strategic direction for Maricopa County is that any future enterprise applications will be Web-based," says Allsing.