Intranet Lessons from Early Adopters

by Sally Atkins


What can you learn from companies which have deployed intranets already? There are plenty of object lessons large and small which can help you avoid the major barrior to intranet success. Here are just a few.

Walmart: Vendor vs. Product Selection
Walmart was a well publicized Microsoft Internet commerce early adopter case study used in analyst and customer briefings last year. Walmart chose the Microsoft line for development of a retailing application. It is rumored that part way into the deployment, Walmart decided to use Netscape-based server products. This case illustrates the fact that it will be difficult to choose a single vendor for development, production, programming, and maintenance if the pressure is on to deliver Internet-based technology solutions for transaction processing this year. The best-of-breed approach may be best for early adopters.

The Walmart example also shows that it is vital to plan an architecture for a total intranet systems management and applications development environment. However, in 1997 you will be hard pressed to buy everything you need to build and manage an intranet from a single vendor. The vendors are moving as fast as they can, but beware of vaporware. Therefore, many companies are starting out by separating applications architecture from network infrastructure architecture and distributed client/server Architecture and making sure all three can be integrated. Early adopters who were most successful defined their architecture and chose existing mix-and-match products to fit into it, rather than buying a product line and associated features. They figured out how to integrate the products in new interconnected server farms that developed with the IP infrastructure. Many shops, including Levi Strauss, developed on NT and Windows with user interface designed on Macintosh and deployed on Unix servers. It is important to categorize the uses of each vendors' products in terms of their roles in your organization.

An example of a product choice vs. a vendor choice is Tivoli's net.Commander, one of the earliest products in the marketplace to handle Intranet management. A compatibility check or evaluation between tools in this category and Microsoft and Netscape server tools should be done before selecting a vendor. If Tivoli (a subsidiary of IBM) is used for systems management functions, it doesn't imply that all of IBM's products are the right ones for all the elements of an intranet applications architecture.

Sun: Centralization vs. Decentralization
Sun had to centralize the infrastructure management and design of its intranet after a free-for-all approach proved too unwieldy to manage. Their internal web is on more than 600 servers spread across every major functional area and distributed around the globe. Most of the servers are departmental and provide information to workgroups. Information earmarked for enterprise-wide audiences is more closely monitored by the Legal and Security departments than is departmental content. The central IS group at Sun manages all servers and covers support costs. Departments pay for content and applications development and design costs. A lead webmaster is in charge of a group of "gatekeepers" similar to the LAN administration model at many companies where the central group advises and leads decentralized LAN managers.

Prudential Securities: Opening Sales Channels
Late last year, Prudential Securities began development of an intranet to serve 5,700 financial advisors and their clients. The first rollout will be for content distribution and communication. Prudential piloted the intranet in eighteen locations throughout the United States using Netscape Navigator, FastTrack server, and Suitespot management tools. The Pru is in the process of rolling out to 270 locations nationwide, with thirty overseas branches to be added to the Intranet this year. This will open up corporate e-mail between clients and brokers for the first time. A Netscape Navigator browser site license for 17,000 employees was also purchased.

Drug Company: Security
A well known pharmaceutical company decided to convert a database to Lotus InterNotes and deploy it on the corporate web. When customers began to call with questions, the company realized that they had inadvertently posted a very confidential database to the world. Many of the new generation of workers have not been exposed to rigorous production control and a pre-production walk-through with senior operations and systems management personnel may have prevented this. A best practice is to require pre-production quality checks to catch potentially embarrassing and costly errors.

FedEx, Oracle and Intel: Quick Successes
Examining well run productive systems with an eye towards enhancement can often yield good results. Federal Express was among the first to realize the value of a web front-end. Their package tracking system is a good example of a relatively minor change to an existing system that makes a world of difference to customers. The same concept can be applied in an intranet environment.

Oracle used an intranet to give its Human Resources department a window from which to display the flexible benefits enrollment program previously handled by interoffice mail. Oracle has also added modules to orient new hires and allow them to register for benefits on-line. Oracle links to benefit providers including Fidelity and Aetna's Health Care Plan.

Intel has added on-line job postings and interactive transfer applications to its Human Resources intranet. To protect confidential information they have assigned employee PINs (personal ID numbers) that limit access to their own information. Receipts and confirmation e-mails are sent automatically after each transaction

Texas Instruments: Embrace Skunkworks
Embracing and extending skunkworks can be a workable strategy that keeps IT in a leadership role while using the R&D investments of various sectors. Texas Instruments (TI) implemented an intranet for workgroup information sharing about a year ago. Their initial use for internal web servers was for information and document repositories. Some servers are departmental, others server the entire enterprise. Applications added after the initial success of the intranet were front-ends to legacy systems. TI expects its intranet to grow rapidly. They intend to create an enterprise-wide information repository composed of Lotus Notes servers, web servers, and document repositories -- all front-ended by web browsers at the desktop. Since web technology is so easy to obtain and deploy, TI found that many users did it themselves without the help of the IT department. At Texas Instruments, IT does not have an R&D budget. Other departments funded the intranet infrastructure pilots, thus providing what they called "vicarious R&D." What emerged were user department preferences and fuel for compromise decisions by the CIO for technologies IT supports for departments. This worked, and the IT department has become the provider of basic services such as the network and cross-functional, enterprise servers. Users are happy because IT is supporting them, not dictating to them.

JC Penney: Wrong Initial Architecture
The JC Penney intranet is known as jWeb and was launched in April of 1995. It is part of a larger effort to improve customer service and includes internal web sites for employee operations manuals, communication and collaboration. The goal is to allow employees to publish content themselves and cut down on paper usage. Departments have begun to use jWeb for e-mail based vacation tracking, project monitoring, and management reports.

According to Melanie Hills, author of the new book Intranet Business Strategies, JC Penney began with the wrong architecture. They had defined intranet requirements for a simple information publishing model. During development, it became apparent that they would also need to handle database integration. The change in requirements caused a delay and additional expense for redesigning the architecture and finding suitable products. Their greatest challenge was designing an architecture that is extensible. In July of last year, the company settled on Netscape products for both the Internet and intranet.

What Else Do the Early Adopters Have to Teach Us?
1) Don't Underestimate the Need for Bandwidth and Support Services
Network failure and downtime on an intranet are worse than no intranet. Once an intranet is available, departments will put critical functions on it. Large companies are finding that to optimize an intranet they need expertise in planning, procurement, installation, tech support, operations, and administration. Many are now automating intranet systems and network management activities in order to manage the expense of the intranet, avoid chaos and confusion, and leverage employees' time.

2) Plan for Remote Access
With TCP/IP in place, field services, customers, and suppliers can access the intranet as easily as customers on the LAN. The major constraint will be bandwidth. Some options for connecting remote locations include dedicated leased lines or non-dedicated dial-up or switched access. The later can be achieved via analog dial-up modem, ISDN digital modem, frame relay, or Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). Virtual private networks (VPNs) are an increasingly popular alternative way to use the Internet itself as the network. VPN involves the use of compatible firewalls on each end of the network connection to encrypt transactions and permit access only to those with authorization. This is a less expensive, more flexible option than dedicated lines. It is well suited for business-to-business, or extranet, applications.

3) Think Through the Security Models
When using a VPN, security becomes a major concern. Firewalls and encryption, as well as digital signatures, authentication and authorization should be considered. Kerberos, a technology available as a commercial product from DEC and Gradient, is a popular solution for authentication and authorization of both remote and local users.

4) Intranets are an Expensive Proposition but You Can Save Costs in Other Areas
In a white paper on the intranet published on its website, Netscape points out that using the same products that enable "cybermalls" on the Internet today, companies can simplify electronic software distribution, billing, and purchasing of supplies by providing an internal web-based mall that offers all company-approved products. Corporate departments currently using paper-based forms or policies can reap the benefits of making transaction applications available through intranets. Not only does an intranet automate request processing and eliminate the possibilities of lost paperwork, it completely erases the costs associated with paper printing and distribution. According to US Web, spending on intranets varies from $15,000 for small companies to over $1 million for large companies. This initiative requires careful budgeting and management of resources The IP infrastructure must be in place and this is a cost barrier for some organizations. Justifying the cost of an intranet with money saved in other areas calls for careful budgeting and ROI models in very large organizations.

5) It Takes a Cross-disciplinary Team and Matrix Organization
Corporate communications, marketing and creative design go hand in hand with the network management and programming of an intranet application or website. The importance of a consistent corporate identity as the Web grows should not be overlooked. Many early adopters have had to go back and enforce design and style guidelines upon users. It is easier to involve Corporate Communications from the start.

The Major Barriers to Success in Intranets Today:

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