Federal Agencies Push into Intranets
- By John Moore
- Nov 10, 1996
Intranets employ the fundamental technologies of the Internet to meet an organization's internal information needs while keeping data safe from Internet-related security risks.
They are gaining in popularity because they are inexpensive to build and take advantage of what many organizations already have in place: local-area networks Web servers and the omnipresent Web browser.
Intranets may be the fastest-growing technology trend ever and one of the most important as well. "The intranet is the most profound rethink in the history of IT " said intranet consultant Mark Gibbs in a recent presentation.
In the federal sector 50 to 80 percent of the agencies have deployed or are planning to install an intranet according to industry estimates. The research-based agencies are among the earliest adopters with the Defense Department and a growing number of civilian agencies also making moves.
"This is definitely a technology that will be important to federal users " said Warren Suss a telecommunications consultant in Jenkintown Pa. "A big part of what the government does is provide access to data and intranets can be a tool to solve that problem."
The basic elements of an intranet are: World Wide Web servers browsers and Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol networks. Typical intranet installations revolve around a Web server that provides links to databases legacy systems document repositories and other electronic resources. Suss noted that many agencies already have intranet building blocks on hand. "The capability is there " he said.
With much of the Web infrastructure already in place agencies are finding that intranet projects can be technically straightforward and relatively inexpensive. The investment can be minimal for agencies that have existing servers and that are using free - or nearly free - browsers. And even sophisticated installations can be built for hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to the millions of dollars associated with traditional systems projects.
For this low cost of entry intranets can provide improved data access and smoother internal communications. The cross-platform universality of the browser offers organizations a common entry point to a range of data sources and applications.
Some federal and industry executives view the intranet as an agent of cultural change within organizations. "Intranets could revolutionize the way we do administrative systems " said Greg Woods team leader for information technology and customer service at the National Performance Review (NPR). Indeed intranet experts view such administrative processes as human resources finance and travel management as prime candidates for intranet deployment.
Others consider the intranet's role as an enterprisewide information conduit to be its key mission. "It's the Holy Grail for a lot of government organizations " said Reed Overfelt the director of on-line technologies at reseller Government Technology Services Inc.
"Research organizations [and] Defense and civilian agencies all have the same problem: informing their people " Overfelt said. "With intranets you can take content off any environment and make information available to people with a free or cheap browser."
Not to be overlooked is the intuitive easy-to-use nature of Web products. "The technology is just so darn simple " said Tim Hoechst the director of technology at Oracle Government. Client/server systems development Hoechst said called for redesigning and implementing entire systems. But with intranets "we are encouraging folks to look for new ways to access their systems rather than building new systems " he said.
Intranets have made rapid inroads into the federal sector. Fifty-one percent of the federal sites surveyed earlier this year by Business Research Group said they are deploying Web servers for internal use according to Greg Cline the director of intranet research at the Newton Mass.-based firm.
Some industry estimates indicate the intranet penetration is even higher. "About 80 percent of the government agencies we work with - and that includes just about all federal agencies - have or are planning on deploying some form of intranet " said Mike Sheehan the director of government sales and marketing at Lotus Development Corp. Lotus is positioning its Notes groupware product as an intranet component.
Early AdoptersResearch-oriented agencies are in the vanguard of federal intranet deployment. "The research organizations NASA [and] the Energy labs [are] the early adopters " Overfelt said.
These agencies have been using the Internet for years to communicate with colleagues in the scientific community and have actively used Web pages to provide public information on their research programs. Intranet use is a natural expansion both technologically and culturally industry observers said.
Intranet planning started two and a half years ago at the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratory. Sandia's intranet went into production in May 1995 and supports 8 000 users. Today the lab's intranet "is our main electronic communications system " said Fran Current the Internet technologies project leader at Sandia.
Sandia has pressed its intranet into a variety of roles. The intranet features financial reporting electronic time cards and expense voucher processing among other applications. It also helps coordinate employee training handles conference room scheduling and offers an electronic employee phone directory and newsletter.
But the key attraction according to Current is that the intranet provides a common platform for data access. The lab operates a mix of Unix workstations PCs and Apple Computer Inc. Macintoshes. But all the devices use Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator browser. "Netscape is the universal client for the enterprise " Current said.
The National Science Foundation is an intranet veteran as well. Joe Burt the deputy director of NSF's Administrative Services Division said his agency put up an internal home page about two years ago. The intranet's features include an employee phone directory a library of scientific information resources and postings of staff vacancies with NSF.
Last month NSF added an electronic repository of the organization's administrative directives and guidelines as its latest intranet resource.
The objective is to "bring together some of the information needed to help the staff " Burt said. NSF employees use Netscape browsers to access the intranet resources which are hosted on a Sun Microsystems Inc. server running Netscape's server software. The intranet leverages NSF's existing LAN resources so "there's relatively low overhead and the information resources are fairly simple to develop " Burt said.
Although individual space centers have been exploring intranets NASA is planning to build an intranet that will span the entire agency. NASA has been working for several months to develop an intranet architecture according to Ron West NASA's chief information officer. NASA has been "looking at how we might install an intranet and the security that goes along with it " he said.
NASA has charged a working group representing most of NASA's space centers to develop the agency's intranet architecture.
The group is expected to issue a report on its findings soon. But the actual installation of the intranet is probably several months to a year away. "We are very much in the planning stage " West said.
Intranets in DODDOD is another intranet hot spot. For the agency intranets have emerged as a tool for business process re-engineering.
"The Internet and intranets are very much going to be a big part of the future of supporting and implementing BPR " said Mike Yoemans DOD's director of BPR.
At the U.S. Atlantic Command based in Norfolk Va. an intranet is at the center of the organization's reinvention.
USACOM's intranet is designed to transform the command into a knowledge-based organization which is the objective of USACOM's commander Marine Corps Gen. John J. Sheehan. "The concept is to use the intranet as a means of implementing a cultural change within the command " said Navy Capt. Don Nash who was appointed by Sheehan to look into USACOM's information issues. "We want to remove stovepipes flatten the organization and get an environment in which people are free to share information.'
A key feature of USACOM's intranet is an electronic daily newspaper Knowledge Today that keeps 550 command personnel up to speed on developments throughout the command's 15 directorates. Knowledge Today which debuted in July includes news a message board and schedules of USACOM officers among other information.
The newspaper which serves as an electronic briefing book of sorts saves USACOM officers hours in meeting preparation time.
In the past some personnel would arrive at work as early as 4:30 a.m. to get ready for a meeting. But now "when they come in the information is there " said Nash whose assignment before the information project was commanding an Aegis-class cruiser. "The environment is changed."
The USACOM intranet is built around a Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant 1500 mirrored server that supports classified and unclassified intranets said Bob Lewis who is in charge of mid-Atlantic operations for Logicon Inc.'s Communications Technology Group. Logicon helped USACOM build its intranet. The intranet uses Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Server product at the server level and Netscape's Navigator browser on client PCs.
The Defense Finance and Accounting Service meanwhile launched an intranet in June to re-engineer its handling of contract documents.
DFAS' paperwork load is staggering. The agency's Columbus Ohio center maintains 400 000 contracts. On large weapons systems contracts DFAS needs to share its files with multiple agencies involved in procuring administering and auditing the contracts. In DFAS' traditional paper-based process that meant making as many as 15 copies of each contract action: original contracts delivery orders and modifications. But the agency's intranet pilot launched in June is designed to ease document access and eliminate redundancy.
The intranet called Electronic Document Access "provides simultaneous access to a variety of communities " according to Teresa K. Walker who is the deputy director for plans and management at DFAS. "It's an electronic file cabinet accessible to authorized users."
In addition to improving data access the system reduces reproduction costs an electronic document is only converted once as opposed to being copied 15 times.
Other DOD agencies are getting involved with intranets as well. The Army Corps of Engineers is using an intranet developed by Control Data Systems Inc. to provide a directory of employee e-mail addresses. And the Strategic Air Command has created StratWeb an intranet that provides information on the activities of directorates within the command.
Civilian IntranetsBeyond research agencies and the Pentagon intranets are sprouting in agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service and the Commerce Department.
USPS' internal Web server provides information to employees on human resource issues such as safety benefits and training according to a USPS spokeswoman. Users can access an on-line library and information on USPS policies and procedures. They can also check out the competition with Web links to companies such as Federal Express.
At Commerce the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the Census Bureau and the Patent and Trademark Office are looking into intranets said Jim McNamee director of the Office of Information Policy and Technology at Commerce. NOAA is at work on a Virtual Data System which will provide access to climatic data.
More agencies are likely to jump on the intranet bandwagon. NPR's Woods said three dozen agencies have been represented at a series of intranet seminars hosted by NPR and Government Information Tech-nology Services. Such governmentwide initiatives as NPR and business process improvement will compel agencies to explore intranet technology. "From the policy perspective the pressure to look at these things is going to be enormous " GTSI's Overfelt said.
Intranet EconomicsIntranets can save agencies money both in deployment costs and in increased efficiency government and industry executives report.
Intranet installation is much less expensive than alternative systems-building approaches including client/server these executives indicate.
Greg Woods team leader for information technology and customer service at the National Performance Review said an intranet pilot can be started for as little as $10 000 with more sophisticated systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Installation is inexpensive because many federal agencies have the infrastructure and personnel in place to field an intranet.
With intranets costing so little to deploy the return on investment hasn't been at the forefront of federal thinking. And those who have tried to quantify ROI have found the task difficult.
But Sandia National Laboratory and other federal organizations are beginning to identify savings. Sandia's intranet for example has helped cut printing costs said Fran Current the Internet technologies project leader at Sandia. The lab used to print an employee newsletter that cost $100 000 annually to publish a paper-based employee phone directory cost $75 000 for each printing. Those costs have been eliminated because the intranet now electronically delivers the newsletter and directory.
The Defense Finance and Accounting Service's intranet is also reducing paper-related costs. The intranet is designed to provide multiple agencies with simultaneous access to contract actions. In the past making those documents available to different agencies meant copying them as many as 15 times.
The intranet however eliminates the need for making multiple copies and therefore saves money. Teresa K. Walker the deputy director for plans and management at DFAS said the cost of a one-time electronic conversion to make documents Web-accessible is about 3 cents a page while copying a document multiple times costs 2 cents a page. Based on those estimates the cost of posting a 50-page document on the intranet would be $1.50 vs. $15 for copying the same document 15 times.
Intranet ApplicationsAgencies taking their first intranet steps are typically focusing on putting "static" information on-line: policy manuals phone directories and human resources information.
"Most of the people we are talking to are interested in how...to get manuals and policies and procedures up on-line " said Scott Weaver vice president of marketing and sales at BTG Inc. "That's the most immediate need and where most of the short-term business is " added Tom Beck BTG's program manager for government Internet solutions.
A recent Business Research Group study indicates that 78 percent of federal intranet applications fall into the human resources and information distribution/communication categories. But industry executives believe federal agencies will expand their intranets to take on more sophisticated applications. The government's next moves will focus on areas such as legacy data access administrative applications and collaborative computing.
"Many agencies are using intranets to provide `static' information to the user community " said Mike Sheehan director of government sales and marketing at Lotus Development Corp. "However more and more are looking for new ways to build `interactive' sites that provide dynamic access to data from core or legacy systems."
Garry Hallee a vice president at Platinum Technology Inc. agreed that most intranets have focused on policy handbooks and the like. But the "big opportunity is to take the bread-and-butter applications and automate those and make them available over an intranet " he added. He cited accounting and help-desk functions as potential intranet applications. In September Platinum announced a toolset called Netcessities for developing intranet applications.