The Web inside the firewall

The Web inside the firewall

The company intranet has grown some teeth. What began as a disorganised collection of Web pages devoted to trivial employee information has come of age in recent years. The new challenge for developers, integrators and other service providers is to make the data of enterprise applications available on the intranet, and equally as important, to manage the mass of content users are then presented with.

Business managers, bless their souls, are taking it upon themselves to call their local IT provider to ask about such projects as "knowledge management" and "collaborative computing".

Thus, while flashy Web designers are pawning their Porsches and reconsidering their future at present, developers with back-end skills have found a hot new market to cash in on. The intranets their designer peers developed a few years back are starting to look pretty mediocre against the applications sitting behind the firewall.

Because the back-end coders have experience with the business applications the organisation has always relied on (in some cases they implemented them), they are well and truly back in demand. Now they are being asked to build the links that could expose that back-end data to the intranet, and introduce new systems to manage the data.

"Intranets aren't just a way of publishing a whole bunch of information and graphics on a Web page anymore," says David Brykman, CEO of Web developer Internet Business Systems. "They are a medium for application delivery."

John Anstey, CEO of software developer Elcom, says Internet technology has matured to a point where an intranet is now a normal business tool. "Now users manage their world and control the technology," he says.

Privatising information

Developing a sophisticated intranet solution involves several challenges that do not necessarily apply to developing a public Internet site. Firstly, there is the obvious issue of security and authentication. Not only are there often rules that separate those inside the firewall from those outside (ie, an extranet), there are also rules for who accesses what data from within the company.

"With an intranet, there is a much higher degree of interaction with the existing IT infrastructure," says Richard Cousins, chief executive of IntraCom. He says an intranet developer has to be conscious not only of adhering to Internet standards, but also the standard operating environment of the customer.

The most significant barriers, however, very rarely lie in the technology, according to developers. A business manager that recognises the value of information across the organisation is likely to pay whatever costs are necessary to make full use of the information and to protect its integrity. The hurdles instead lie within the politics of implementing the solution.

"A lot of the pains are not technological issues; they're business issues," says Nick Baldwin, commercial product strategy manager for Presence Online. "It is vital to get the right people involved; to get buy-in from as high up as possible."

Cousins says the organisational and political pressures involved with deploying an intranet mean that project management skills are becoming as essential as design skills. He believes the only way to minimise these issues is to engage with a corporate customer at a senior level.

Anstey agrees: "We are starting to see the difference between cool Web developers and people with real business skills," he says. "It is now a case of fundamentals prevail - skills like project management are essential. Sometimes we can highlight issues and processes the IT department isn't necessarily aware of."

Steven Layer, director of Sydney-based intranet developer WebLogics, says an implementation will never fail if the developer goes in looking to solve business issues rather than technological issues.

Cousins likens the process to constructing a building. "Our belief has always been you don't start with the design, even with public Internet sites," he says. "We compare it to a building - you first look at what it's for, then look at the structure, then get the designers in to do the facade and the foyer."

Another important challenge for channel companies is getting their feet in the door of large enterprises to be considered for large intranet projects. While some developers claim their experience is such that they have no trouble pitching to a large corporation, others have to find an alternative route to getting the work. Many large organisations outsource much of their IT work to one of the large service providers, such as CSC, EDS or IBM, which often delegate parts of their contracts to specialist sub-contractors.

Cousins highlights the importance of building partnerships and having the relevant focus and specialisation to be considered for such sub-contracting work. At the same time, Elcom's Anstey says a developer should pay close attention to the fine print of these partnerships before considering the job. "When you're a middle-sized company, you need to be careful that the big services players don't swamp you during projects and just use you for your intellectual property," he warns.

Managing the data

Developers and systems integrators have found a new value-add to the services revenue gained from implementing an intranet solution. Now that the next generation of intranets can retrieve and use data from a variety of legacy systems, the amount of exposed data can be overwhelming.

The cost of managing the data could, over several years, add up to more than the cost of implementing the intranet in the first place. Because of the sensitivity of some of the information stored within an enterprise, many business managers appoint an employee to manage the publishing of content on the intranet on behalf of a department or group. Others prefer to confront the problem as soon as the intranet is in place by asking the IT provider for a content management solution.

Content management software enables users, or in this case employees and partners of an organisation, to update content on the intranet according to pre-set business rules. "It shouldn't be a question of how to publish but whether you are authorised to publish in a particular area," says Cousins.

Anstey suggests that this user-centric aspect of content management software is opening the eyes of many employees to the benefits of information technology and is achieving the enterprise-wide efficiencies much more complicated systems failed to foster. "At its basic level, the rocket science is gone," he says. "It is good news for the IT industry - people are seeing the benefits of the technology for themselves."

The first content management solutions to penetrate the local market were from American vendors such as Vignette and Interwoven during the height of the dot-com boom. Since then, small developers have begun offering their own content management products as part of their intranet and Internet solutions, and are effectively cutting their more expensive peers out of the market.

"Most of the vendors with high-end content management solutions are struggling at the moment," says Mark Blair, a technology evangelist for tools vendor Macromedia. "They are complicated to implement, take too much time to implement, and they are very expensive. They also try to deploy an enterprise-wide solution that encompasses everything in one go."

WebLogics' Layer says it comes down to price. "You can achieve strong functionality without paying a US price," he says.

Presence Online's Nick Baldwin warns that smaller content management solutions are favourably priced for a reason. "It's not that they are rubbish - it's that they tend to focus on a particular application of content management," he says. "An enterprise system doesn't focus so much on one application, it focuses on delivery. Things like caching and support, distributing the load across servers, and syndication and personalisation of content."

But Baldwin asserts that there is room for both enterprise-wide and niche providers. "There are still a lot of opportunities for smaller players to make some good money identifying particular needs."

Either way, Australian software developers are finding markets for their content management solutions, and not just domestically.

Internet Business Systems' Brykman says customers are being won over by the level of expertise in Australian developers. Unlike several of the large vendors, where staff turnover is such that you are talking to a different team of people halfway through the project, smaller developers are prepared to have their most experienced and valuable staff involved directly with projects. "They are talking to people who will deliver an extra level of service. There is someone there you can trust who will roll up their sleeves with you," Brykman says.

"The story for Australian developers is extremely encouraging," he says. "We are head and shoulders above the competition, for more reasons other than price. We are often competing with overseas companies in their own backyard and doing very well."

Meanwhile, Anstey said the opportunities for intranet solutions are only just beginning. He points to the introduction of workflow and knowledge management solutions to the intranet as ways of extending the functionality even further. He also suggests there are growing opportunities for intranet/extranet developers to take on the development of infrastructure for XML-based Web services.

"All these solutions need integration, so they provide great opportunities for services revenue."

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