Approaches to Intra and Extranet Development
by John H. Saunders, Ph.D.

The growth in popularity of internet technology has prompted an associated growth in approaches  for creating and maintaining information systems that 'ride' on the base technologies. What more specifically are these approaches and how might we evaluate them? The remainder of this reading  looks at those alternatives and attempts to provide some guidance for evaluating them. It will begin by providing a definition for  intra and extranets. It will then provide a taxonomy and characteristics of each of the approaches. It will also provide a basis for matching a solution to an organizationís environment. Finally, it will provide some caveats for managers who need to think carefully about the long term effects of creating and maintaining these solutions.

What is Intra and Extranet technology?

An intranet is a privately owned information network that utilizes the protocols, tools, and languages of the Internet. An extranet expands the concept to allow for customer access via two way interaction - typically with an issued user ID and security features.  This differs from "open" web based information where any person can read the information provided. The varieties of protocols used in intra and extranetting include TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP, FTP, CGI, SMTP, Usenet, and IRC. The principal tools include servers (with utilities), browsers, and web page organization programs. The primary languages utilized include HTML, VRML, JAVA and JavaScript. The server is central to the establishment and implementation of an intra and extranets because it must be able to interpret the variety of protocol instructions and also store and deliver the data packets.
 
A Taxonomy of Approaches

Four relatively clear approaches for building these types of systems have arisen. They are 1) roll your own, 2) packaged applications, 3) generic systems, and 4) see through. A Roll your own approach entails coding data or information from scratch, most frequently using HTML and CGI scripting languages such as JavaScript. Packaged applications are purchased "turnkey" applications oriented toward specific functional areas such as sales or budgeting. They are usually written in JavaScript or Java by professional software organizations such as Oracle or Netscape. Generic systems provide a loose framework with generic application templates or data structure supports that work within the internet protocols. Finally, See Through programs operate by providing a window through a browser into legacy applications. The table below provides a quick look at additional characteristics for each of the approaches.
 

Approach
Description
Vendors/
Examples
Advantages
Disadvantages
Roll Your Own Start coding HTML, CGI, Java from scratch Organization specific Custom built; sense of pride in creation Expensive; 

difficult to maintain

Packaged Application Pre-packaged applications such as sales, purchasing Oracle, Oblix Ready to go; meets immediate business need Likely need tailoring; 

limited applications available; training required

Generic Template environment for application creation and management Lotus Domino; 

Allaire Cold Fusion

May build on legacy apps; 

complete solution; integrated

Adaption, training
See Through Use of your browser to view legacy applications running on your LAN or mainframe CITRIXís Winframe; 

SCOís Tarantella

No new development necessary; very cost effective Must continue to support legacy apps; some inefficiency in speed and processing because of added layer
 
Note that these categories are not meant to be all -inclusive. There are many variations on a theme. And as web based information system applications grow, so will the options for delivering them. Irrespective of which of the above approaches an organization may select, certain basic requirements are necessary. That is, intranets and extranets are no different from traditional client server systems in needing servers that must be purchased (e.g. $5,000 for a 100 user Intranetware license from Novell) and maintained (backup, upgrades). They also require webmasters (in lieu of network administrators) to administer and control access to the data. It would be untenable to have a user create a series of pages only to have another user come along and accidentally delete them. Additionally it is desirable for these systems to have links to the other information systems already resident in the organization such as e-mail and databases. Gateways to those systems need to be created and maintained. The following paragraphs discuss additional vagaries of the individual approaches.

Roll Your Own

This method is the approach currently most utilized. Roll your own has been a common sense evolution. Intra and Extranets are  new technologies and therefore not much software support is yet available for integrating and managing web pages. Much of this type of help is just now surfacing. We are passing through a stage roughly equivalent to mainframe computing in the early 1960ís. At that time database management systems and packaged applications did not yet exist. Organizations hired and used their own programmers to build systems from scratch.

The roll your own approach is touted as easy and inexpensive. It provides this appearance by giving users the ability to create their own home pages through HTML coding, and the hypertext linking capability inherent in internet protocols. A number of vendors have created packages or add-ons to word processing packages for building HTML web pages. With an hour or two of training, users can be creating personal web pages to attach to an intranet.

Technical management of a roll your own intra or extranet  is typically limited to what may be accomplished through low level server capability, for example, read/write privileges on disk directories. This places a burden on the user to know what directories may be used. It also surfaces the issue of how pages and links are to be maintained upon a userís transfer or leaving. In a survey of ten organizations using roll your own intranet technology, an average of one full time person needed for each intranet server in use. This person is needed in addition to LAN management personnel. This management can be aided through the use of programs such as Microsoftís Front Page for organizing and controlling content.

The use of the roll your own approach for transaction processing or document control is a poor approach. These types of applications require expensive professional Java or JavaScript programmers and months if not years of development time. There are however a growing array of tools available for building these types of applications. Just as Visual Basic and PowerBuilder surfaced as application development environments for a Microsoft Windows client server environment, now Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) such as Visual Cafe (http://www.symantec.com/vcafeprowin/) from Symantec and InterDev (http://msdn.microsoft.com/vinterdev/Prodinfo/default.asp) from Microsoft have arisen to meet the needs of Java developers.

To meet the serious business userís needs, and eliminate the "start from scratch" necessity, vendors have stepped in and created turnkey packaged internet applications.

Packaged Application

Most of an organizationís business needs can be well served by packaged software. Knowing this, vendors such as Oracle, Clarify, and Oblix have begun producing Web-based software for a variety of application areas such as customer support, sales/marketing, and human resources management. Their goal is a turnkey system that a customer can install quickly, receive on-line training, and implement post-haste. Oracle has produced an array of applications in manufacturing, supply chain management, financials, projects, human resources, and front office (http://www.oracle.com/applications/html/products.html)

Clarify (http://www.clarify.com/) has produced applications such as call tracking, service-contract verification, customer-configuration management, defect tracking, and service-inventory management that companies such as Cisco Systems are using daily. Oblix has produced an environment called IntraPower Suite. It includes an Employee Directory, Resource Scheduler, Dynamic Business Cards, and Organization Chart. The largest problem in this approach is the current lack of extensive applications. Although working hard, it will take time before application specific vendors can convert their applications from the client server side to Web/Intranet based technology. Meanwhile organizations can find solutions that go half-way toward a turnkey environment through generic approaches.

Generic

The generic approach is an interesting hybrid between the packaged application thrust and the roll your own method. There are several vendors who offer structural frameworks and more sophisticated management tools for creating and managing HTML and other data types. These include Lotusí Domino (http://www2.lotus.com/),  Interbase (http://www.interbase.com/) from a division of Inprise and Allaire Corpís Cold Fusion,  The thrust of this approach is to set up a complete environment for allowing users to create web pages, but to also integrate them easily by adding the essentials of database technology. The features commonly available in database environments such as access control, security, and query capability are then available for web based documents. A particularly attractive feature of this product is the groupware aspect. Users can pull information from the intranet, but also push it, i.e. place information on the server in a much more organized fashion without having to coordinate with the Webmaster. Additionally users can create forms and output views without extensive professional training and experience. The Lotus product acts as both an intranet and internet server simultaneously. This provides an organization with the capability of developing intranet applications that can then be turned out onto the web. Notesbases databases residing on a Domino server exist in an HTML format. The paradigm for data control through Domino is also different. The content of and access to a Notes database, internal and external to the organization, is controlled by the database manager, not the Webmaster or network administrator. Domino also has CC:Mail built in with SMTP, POP3 and X.400 compliance.

In any of the three approaches just visited a substantial investment must be made in development and infrastructure support. Another method which bypasses much of this need is surfacing.

See Through

The rationale behind much of the thrust of creating intra and extranets has been to utilize the browser such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer as a single point of entry and navigation among an organizationís information. In fact, little data is yet available to support the cost benefit payoff of creating intranets (see Web Week 21 April 1997). In response to this lack of a measure and in response to a need for accessing an organizations legacy systems, two vendors have produced products which allow and end user to peer through his browser into the legacy applications. The two products in this arena are CITRIXís Winframe (http://www.citrix.com/products/winframe.asp) and SCOís Tarantella (http://www.tarantella.sco.com/). Winframeís non-HTML access is limited to applications running on Microsoft client server networks. Tarantella however works through a wide range of UNIX (X-Window), Novell and mainframe application frameworks. While this approach is very cost effective it prevents data which is not in an internet accessible format from being integrated. It also limits processing to legacy capability.

Central Issues

While certainly any organizationís criteria for evaluating intranet options are specific to its needs, the following list of issues are likely universal and therefore should be considered when evaluating the various approaches to intraneting:

  • Cost - Initial, maintenance, programming, training
  • Compatibility / Standards / Platforms
  • Security / Access
  • Interface/Ease of Use
  • Network Management Tools
  • Data Organization and Access
  • Development and Administrative Personnel Availability
  • Application Development / Extensibility / Customization
  • The "Independent" Intra and Extranet Approach?

    While intra and extranets have been proliferating, many if not most of the efforts have been "bottom up", that is started and extended by decentralized, enthusiastic individuals. Ultimately, however, your organization will need to answer the questions: What is the business purpose of our Intranet and is it cost effective? What applications needs will readily be answered with this technology, and what others are inefficient using these approaches? The fact that the basic paradigm of the web is hypertext should not be ignored. Information Systems managers should be wary of falling into the trap of the 1960ís - spaghetti code. There is significant cost down the road to those who are now advocating a "Do your own thing" - no structure approach. Payday will come in the form of heavily overloaded Webmasters, the entanglement and loss of links, and the loss of control and history over one of the organizations most important assets - its information.

    (c) 1998 John H. Saunders. Permission granted for use in academic environments.