by Young Lee
Intranets, as the name implies, are an "internal" version of the Internet. They provide a standard network platform for a companyís internal data and application needs based on the same technology used on the Internet and World Wide Web (Web). The basic intranet can be built by adding a Web server to a network and using standard Internet-based protocols, such as TCP/IP and HTTP to transfer data. The end-user uses a Web browser that can run Java applications to do all tasks.
Businesses can gain many benefits from using intranets for computing needs. One benefit is that little hardware upgrade or scrapping is necessary to implement an intranet. Companies can often utilize their existing network backbone without starting from scratch. The main change would be to use Internet-based transfer protocols, instead of the mixture of transport protocols used in the standard client/server network.
Unlike its predecessor, the traditional two-or-more tiered client/server network, intranets are essentially platform-independent: it does not matter what computer system the client is using. Just as users of many different types of computers can access the same information on the Web, so too will all the users of an intranet be able to all use the same data and applications.
As long as a machine can run a Web browser and Web protocols, it is fully functional in the intranet environment. Since most corporate network end-user machines are already capable of using Web protocol and browsers, existing systems do not need to be scrapped. At most, some software needs to be updated. An intranet client can be "thin", just running its operating system and a Web browser, rather than "fat" with big, powerful computers running big, powerful applications locally.
This kind of client system has been recently coined an "NC" or Network Computer. Many machines can meet the NC standard, including workstations, desktop PCs, laptops, hand-held Personal Digital Assistants, and in the not-so-distant future even info-appliances such as telephones, set-top Web boxes, and video games systems. Future NCís promise to be cheaper than current client computers, so that corporations could expand their intranets inexpensively.
Another benefit of intranets is the reduced expense of software and application maintenance. According to one source, current ownership costs for a stand-alone Windows 3.1 desktop PC system are over $44,000 for a five-year period. Simplifying the client machine will reduce much of those labor costs.
All activity is achieved at the client-end through Java-enabled Web browsers. The Web browser is the only piece of software, besides the operating system, that needs to be maintained at the userís end. The total cost is reduced, because Web browsers are inexpensive and there is no need to install various native applications for each end-user.
Intranets will allow users to learn applications fast. It has been reported that once users are trained in using a Web browser, then learning an application based on it takes almost 70 percent less time than learning a new application with the same functionality. This substantially shorter learning curve results in reduced training costs.
Application development is much easier in an intranet environment. A number of utilities and code libraries allow intranets to utilize existing databases. These utilities save time and money by avoiding re-entry or manual porting of data into an intranet-usable form.
The lionís share of the simplified application development is done in Java. With this platform-independent language, only one version of an application needs to be developed Ė rather than native, platform-dependent versions for each type of computer end-users have. [See Burfening article above]
Another time and cost saving aspect of Java is its similarity to C++, the language of choice for many developers. Javaís similarity makes it easier to learn and facilitates the translation of existing applications into Java.
Intranets are easily scalable, accommodating any number of users by growing and shrinking as necessary. Any number of users can obtain applications at any time.
Intranet technology is still relatively young, and it is going through growing pains. A number of drawbacks will have to be fixed before intranets can achieve their full potential. Software, both programming languages and communication protocols, is still in the early stages. Currently, intranets are useful mainly for looking up text documents and Web pages, such as employee manuals and training documents, but not for running programs.
JAVA will always lag in performance because of one of its inherent properties. JAVA is a run-time, interpreted language, rather than a compiled language producing native code. As a result, applications developed for the intranet environment can be up to ten times slower than their proprietary counterparts.
One possible solution to the performance gap is JAVAís ability to integrate native compiled code to enhance performance. However, this solution will undermine the platform-independent nature of the JAVA application. There are a number of other ways to ameliorate the performance gap, but it is unlikely that it will be bridged.
Java is touted as a truly platform-independent language, but that promise has yet to be truly realized. There are currently difficulties in achieving true inter-operability.
There are also security concerns with intranets that have yet to be addressed. Suppliers are working on filling potential security gaps. One way is to develop more secure protocols, such as Point to Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), which can establish more secure and robust links. Java also has a potential for mischievous applications, which can spread through an intranet like the flu.
The very strength of intranets, their centralized nature, can pose a problem. A Web serverís performance could suffer, or even fail, if there are many simultaneous users. Early signs of such meltdowns can be seen during casual surfing of the Web, where many servers become too swamped to handle all the connections users attempt.
Intranets will be a wonderful alternative for the fledgling company. Small companies with limited capital might benefit from an intranet approach to networking, and bypass the traditional client/server network. Companies spread throughout a large geographical area can take advantage of the inherent properties of intranets which make them well suited for establishing Virtual Private Networks (VPNís). A VPN is a very cost effective way to link remote sites into a Wide Area Network (WAN).
Intranets are not a something-for-nothing solution. Implementing an intranet can still run a hefty price tag, especially when it is necessary to "Web-enable" existing functions, applications, and data.
Intranets do not signal the death of the traditional client/server network. However, there is little doubt that intranets will be key components in future corporate network solutions. The speed and universality of intranet adoption will depend on the speed with which necessary features are developed and implemented. One thing is certain about intranets: they will be a nice cash-cow for suppliers of hardware and software as more and more companies seek to implement them.