Point of Beginning

Web Exclusive: Can You Say IntRAnet?

January 2, 2001
How to use Internet technologies to increase your efficiency.

By Mark Deal, PLS

The rise of the Internet has given us much more than access to information. Internet technology has evolved and given us many tools that can be utilized to help leverage existing computer assets, which in turn, run a business better. As the business climate continues to put a squeeze on profits, it becomes more important to use all of your assets to their fullest potential. If you have more than a few employees, an intranet may provide a useful platform for managing projects, disseminating information, workgroup collaboration, and other tasks.

There is a large body of literature and a great deal of hype about intranets. Much of this touts the usefulness of intranets for the enterprise, a computer industry buzzword that seems to permeate every technology vendor's marketing plan. The fact is that whether you are a large, multinational corporation or a small land surveying firm, an intranet can make sense for you.

So, just what is an intranet? An intranet can be simply described as interconnected computers within an organization that use applications just as the Internet does. It is a safe bet to say that nearly all intranets in use are running off of web servers, but some include newsgroup applications, and some also use FTP for sharing files.

Rather than describe many of the abstract possibilities of intranet technology, I'd like to begin by describing how my firm has successfully implemented an intranet for our use. You may find that what I describe might not benefit your firm at all, but I hope that from reading this you will think of something that could be adapted to your enterprise.

Our intranet is based upon a simple local area network, with a DSL router that provides access to the Internet from all machines. Our intranet is designed around the portal model, using only a web server to deliver all of the content. Most of the content is dynamically generated from an Access database through Active Server Pages. We're using Internet Information Server from Microsoft on Windows NT Server. All interaction with the intranet takes place using a web browser. It allows us to use one application as a focal point for nearly all of the information we use throughout the day.

I have created all of the pages on our intranet from scratch using a text editor to create the HTML and ASP code. There are numerous HTML editors available, which make this job somewhat easier. I prefer a text editor since many of the HTML editors I've used will insert code that I do not want in my pages. It's basically a preference thing. Use what you are comfortable with.

On our intranet, the browser displays two frames; a main frame and a menu frame with general links that expand to display more specific links. Some of the links are static, such as those within the weather submenu. Clicking on one of these links will bring up a weather forecast site in the main frame of the web browser. Weather forecasting being what it is, we have three different sources linked to our intranet. Other links on the menu are dynamic in that the information produced on the screen is generated from a database. For example, time sheets are entered and can be queried from a submenu. Contact information is also generated from a database table. Rather than each employee maintaining an address book, all such contact information is entered, modified and searched from a common database table through our intranet. This is much more efficient than a separate address book for each person.

If a client calls with a request for a proposal, I can click on a link, which brings up the county assessor's website in the main frame. I can enter a street address or name and get a brief legal description. If it is a platted lot, I can click on another link in the menu frame that will allow me to search our database for a copy of that subdivision plat in my files. Subdivision plats can also be searched by quarter section. If we don't have the necessary plat, I click on a staff link to send an E-mail or page to someone so it is picked up. Once we pick up a copy of a new plat, the name and other relevant information about that plat is entered into the database through the intranet.

The primary use of our intranet is as a project management system. The projects submenu contains several links to different ASP pages that provide different views of all our projects. It is possible to search for a specific project based upon certain criteria or find all projects that have been done for a specific client, etc. One such link provides a very detailed view of project specific information. A query executed through this selection on the menu will produce all relevant information about that project in the main frame of the browser. In addition to the project specific data, there are two links in the main frame. One link will display an index of all files contained within that project's directory on the server. We have drawing viewer plug-ins installed in our browsers so when you click on a .dwg file, the CAD drawing will be displayed in the frame. The other link in this frame will bring up all comments that have been entered regarding this project. It acts as a project log if you will, and additional comments can be entered here as well. All comments are stored in a database table and dynamically rendered.

The net result of this effort is that, whichever desk I happen to be at when a client calls, I can quickly execute a search through the projects, immediately see fresh data regarding this project, quickly look over the drawing or certificate, and look up the phone or fax number of someone else involved in the project. I can also click on the staff submenu and send an E-mail to someone asking to add a name to the certificate, or click another link to send a page to a party chief asking him to extend the topo another hundred feet to the east. This is something of an oversimplification, but it describes the key reason we've created such a system. Wherever we are, be it in the office, on the road, at home or at a jobsite, all of this information is quickly and easily accessed.

While I have access to our intranet from any browser that is online, I really like to show this off with my new TDS Ranger. I can pull a cable out of my tool belt, plug the Ranger into my PCS phone and access our intranet from the field. Whether I need to simply look up a phone number or download a point file, I can do it from anywhere.

As you begin to deliberate how you might deploy an intranet in your firm, there are some things you should think about. The most obvious issue is security. While I will not describe how we've implemented a security solution for our intranet, I have provided many links below, some that will provide you with the information you need regarding security. It should be pointed out that there is no such thing as bullet-proof security; some information you will not want to make available through your intranet. There can also be levels of security. For example, on our intranet, there are no security measures involved to check the weather. For project information, you must enter a user name and password if you have not accessed that area within the previous 15 minutes. Different sections can have different access restrictions. Keep in mind that if you make it too difficult to use, then you will not be using it yourself, and the effort will have been wasted.

Another important issue to consider while planning the development of your intranet is to not spend a lot of time maintaining it later. Plan with growth and change in mind. While modifying something on your intranet is easy to do, do not create a system that requires effort to keep it up or current. You should also realize that what you create today may not be what you wind up with next year. I've tried several good ideas on our intranet that didn't work out for us. One such example was a group calendar. I set up a calendar to show all appointments throughout each day for each staff member. It was not too difficult to use, but it did not get used by everyone consistently, so it was useless.

An intranet is like any other website; it is always under construction. We currently have two new features under development. One of these will allow us to search through our lists of projects and control monuments by location. The other new development uses an AT command (specific to Windows NT) to fire a Vbscript after midnight each day. That script executes a search through a table looking for reminders for each current employee for that day. It then fires off an HTML formatted E-mail to each employee with a list of tasks to be performed that day. Adding, modifying and marking each task as it is done is accomplished through the intranet.

In order to build your intranet, decide what kind of applications will be used. If you are going to use web pages, then you will need a web server (also called an HTTP server if you are searching the net - there are still some out there that are shareware). If you want to set up newsgroups in your firm for exchanging knowledge, then you will need an NNTP server.

While our intranet is always connected to the Internet, yours does not have to be set up that way. If you have the need to bring all of your resources to your desktop web browser, but do not need to access it from outside of the office, then by all means leave it isolated from the rest of the world. That will certainly make security less of an issue.

If your system is always connected, then you may not want to deal with setting up an internal server. You can pay a fee each month to have your site hosted by an outside vendor. This can be a very good deal if you want some specific applications but do not want to pay for the high cost or maintenance. If you decide to go this route, then you should give more serious consideration to security.

Your intranet can be as simple as a single page with links to other documents, such as layering schemes or field code lists. It can also be as complex as you can imagine. Just approach it as a tool like any other. If you are somewhat experienced at HTML coding, or desire to learn how, you can certainly do the entire project yourself, provided you have the time. Consultants are also available if necessary. The Internet has a great deal of information available on the subject. I've compiled a somewhat brief list of links that should help you in this regard:

Microsoft has put together a clearinghouse of information regarding intranets for you to peruse - http://www.microsoft.com/intranet/

The Intranet Journal has lots of useful information regarding intranets - http://intranetjournal.earthweb.com

Billed as the complete Intranet Resource, this site has a lot of useful information on the subject - http://intrack.com/intranet/

Intranet Design Magazine is another excellent source of material - http://idm.internet.com/

Gatsby has good applications for making database connectivity easier - http://www.gatsbysoftware.com

The Cold Fusion products from Allaire are worth looking into - http://www.allaire.com

The K-Station product line from Lotus can give you some good insight into different uses and intranet architecture - http://www.lotus.com

For publishing geographically referenced data on your intranet, check out the ArcIMS product from ESRI - http://www.esri.com/software/arcims/index.html

Roy Scribner of At Work Computers (manufacturers of the Ranger) provided me with this link for some useful tips on Windows CE applications - http://www.fmcpherson.com/knowce/how.htm

As always, if you should have any questions on this subject, please feel free to send me an E-mail - mark@rpls.net.

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