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September 3, 2004
The scoop on ‘nets’
“Extranets” were a quick fad in cyberspace a few years ago—quick to achieve prominence and quick to fade.
At least, the word “extranet” faded; the concept didn’t. In fact, the collaborative systems designed to bring contractors, subs, architect, engineers, suppliers and the like together on a single, job-specific Web site were just extranets in disguise.
Those were all proprietary systems, though, that imposed some software requirements (and sometimes hardware requirements) on users. And they were perceived to be useful and affordable only for big firms working on big projects, although that perception was not necessarily true.
Then Microsoft came along with .NET, or dot NET. It is, in part, a business strategy from Microsoft. But it is also a collection of programming support for developers of what are known as Web services. These are services that give you the ability to use the Web rather than your own computer for a large and growing number of tasks.
They can range from such important things like storage management, or customer relationship management, all the way down to furnishing a stock quote, or comparing prices on electronic gadgets or books.
Microsoft didn’t do a good job of explaining all that when it launched the dot Net initiative, and people were skeptical at first. But after developers realized the implications, they quickly began to clamber on board.
Then, within weeks, a mention of Web services no longer caused raised eyebrows. Instead, Web services had become major Web trend.
The availability of these services means, for the construction industry and many others, that some things that were considered unaffordable by smaller firms are now easily within reach—like intranets and extranets.
Think of an extranet as a site to which access is controlled, where some or all of the visitors are coming from outside the corporate firewall. Think of it as an extension of the company intranet beyond the organization.
It’s a way to share up-to-date documents with suppliers, subs, architect, engineers, or anyone else with a legitimate interest in the job. It’s a way to manage projects in a centralized workspace, to collaborate on document revision, and to provide such back-office functions as inventory management.
All this sounds nice, but it hasn’t always been easy. While an extranet has members from outside the corporate firewall that protects the company intranet, the extranet required a firewall of its own, plus digital certificates, or some similar means of authenticating visitors. It required encryption of messages and the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), a way of using the Internet to provide remote offices or individual users with secure access.
While all that isn’t as costly as it sounds, it would still stretch a lot budgets.
Constructing an extranet was a job for an IT professional, not for someone who is merely “handy with computers.” Putting a VPN together is not all that complex, but deploying it can be tricky—tricky enough to heed the TV commercials that warn: “Don’t try this at home.”
Last spring I wrote a column about a Web-based project management service called Basecamp. It was brand new at the time, one of just a few such services available then. I predicted then that the market would soon become crowded, and it has. So I’ll come back to this subject next time and introduce you to a firm that seems to have jumped into the lead in the field of Web-based networking.
In the meantime, if you want more information about intranets and extranets, an excellent source is Intranet Journal, an online publication with an extensive library dealing with anything and everything related to networks.
Point your browser at www.intranetjournal.com
You’re always welcome to comment on anything you see in this column, or suggest topics for discussion. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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