Marc's Rants


The following article appeared in Thrust for Educational Leadership, Volume 28, No. 4, March/April 1999.

Intranet: It's not just a typo anymore

By Marc Elliot Hall

Even if you've been firmly ensconced under a rock since 1989 and your secretary (or you!) still uses an IBM Selectric to type your correspondence, you've heard the buzz about the Internet. And you might have thought, "So, what's that got to do with me?" In short: lots.

Many businesses, organizations and public agencies (including school districts) have turned the same technologies that make the Internet possible into tools for increasing productivity and lowering costs. This set of tools -- when used within an individual organization -- is called an intranet.

With an intranet, a district with a centralized information repository -- be it a mainframe, minicomputer or network server -- and a computer network can transform any computer within the organization into a report-generating powerhouse.

With an intranet, any information that may have been hidden by a layer of bureaucracy from the technology have-nots can be searched, sifted and filtered by anyone with a Web browser. Upper management can have reports within minutes instead of the hours -- or even days -- it may have taken before.

How is this miracle accomplished?

Anyone who has used the Web is familiar with the idea of hyperlinked information. Click on an underlined keyword or phrase and the screen is refreshed with new content; related information is available within moments. Or, fill out a form in your Web browser and have specific information filtered out of thin air and placed on your screen in seconds.

Imagine if you could do this with all the information your district now has locked away in the refrigerated hinterland of the district computer room, accessible only to a priesthood of geeks.

Well, now you can.

The Internet and intranets both run using a protocol called TCP/IP. A protocol is simply a code of polite or diplomatic conduct, in this case one for communication between computers.

TCP/IP allows computers separated by distance (from a few feet to thousands of miles) to exchange data by breaking it up into small packets. Each packet is given a sequence number, an origination code and a destination code. Then each packet is sent over a wire to find its own way through the network. Each computer intercepting one of the packets reads the destination code and forwards the packet by the shortest available route.

When all of the packets arrive at their destination, the receiving computer puts them all in the proper sequence and gives the user of the receiving computer access to the data. If any packets fail to arrive, the receiving computer sends a message to the originating computer and asks it to resend the missing pieces.

This protocol is what makes the World Wide Web, in addition to the less famous services of the Internet -- such as FTP, gopher and WAIS -- possible.

Conversely, two fundamental differences separate an intranet from the Internet:

  1. The outside world doesn't have unrestricted access to intranet information, and staff members can easily place controls on the access individuals within the organization have to different kinds of information. So although the same kinds of computers and software run and have access to an intranet and the Internet, they can be separated from one another as securely as an organization wants to make them.
  2. District staff has control over what kinds of computers, browsers and connections are used to access the information and don't need to worry about the compatibility issues that plague Internet developers.

The advantages of an intranet over more traditional information retrieval systems are legion:

  • Because an intranet uses standard Internet protocols, most services can be accessed with a simple Web browser.
  • Web browser-based information access means that even the most primitive district computers can use the same information that may currently be reserved for only those with access to a district mainframe or minicomputer (such as an AS/400 or Unix server).
  • A district won't be required to replace most of its existing information infrastructure because the current systems can (generally) be used to form the foundation of a districtwide intranet.
  • A district can provide information access to staff on any basis it decides, without worrying about whether individuals have the right equipment.
  • Staff can generate reports and other documents without interrupting the workflow of others.
  • Electronic document routing within an organization can be automated so that all appropriate stakeholders (and only appropriate stakeholders) review information before it is released to the public.
  • Making commonly requested information -- such as policies and procedures, employee benefits and time sheets -- available via an intranet can have many benefits. Assuming employees are trained not to print out all of the information each week, it can significantly reduce overhead associated with printing, photocopying and human resources staff time.
  • Web browsers are free, potentially reducing the total cost of software on individual PCs or Macintoshes.
  • Since information access is browser-based, a district needn't be locked into a single platform for data access (whether Macintosh or PC) for years at a stretch. Similarly, districts don't need to have a homogenous network environment (exclusively Mac or exclusively PC).
  • If the underlying technologies or vendors change, most users will not have to be retrained. The browser interface will remain the same, so only information services staff will need to adapt to the new tools or suppliers.
  • New services can be added incrementally as district needs change. Furthermore, existing services can be modified without as much effort as is currently required when district needs change.
  • If adequate controls are in place, district staff can use laptops or home computers to access information from remote locations.

The downsides

There are, however, some downsides to implementing an intranet to replace your district's existing information infrastructure:

  • Your information services staff may need to learn a new set of tools before they can make legacy data available.
  • A poorly implemented intranet can pose a significant risk to employee confidentiality.
  • Those unfamiliar with Web browsers may be reluctant to learn a new skill.
  • Although over time an intranet will probably save a district money, in the short term it can be expensive.
  • Given many districts' concerns about Y2K issues, implementing an intranet may not be feasible for at least another year.

Districts would be wise to at least investigate intranet possibilities. Many resources are available on the World Wide Web (see sidebar). In addition, trade journals and books can be valuable. However, since the Internet field continues to evolve so rapidly, the Web resources are almost certainly the most valuable when seeking an overview of intranet issues.

Intranet resources on the Web


Allaire Cold Fusion
Inprise (formerly Borland)
Lotus Domino

General Information

CIO Magazine's Intranet Research Center
CIO Magazine "Intranets: How the Web Is Being Used within Business"
The Complete Intranet Resource
Fortune Magazine "Building an Intranet inside your Company"
Intranet Design Magazine
Intranet Journal
David Strom's collection of intranet resources
UC Davis

Marc Elliot Hall is ACSA's webmaster.