Is Your Intranet a Trojan Horse?
- By Barbara Depompa Reimers
- Dec 31, 1997
Intranets promise to bring elite applications to users more easily than traditional network systems. But the rush to the new technology could expose state and local agencies to financial and network headaches down the road.
Intranets are all the rage. And by the turn of the century, many state and local government officials and market analysts predict, intranets will become the preferred way to link state and local government agencies for interoffice communications.
That's because intranets promise to bring formerly elite applications such as groupware, scheduling and e-mail to a far broader group of workers, and for far less expense and complexity than traditional network systems. This, the reasoning goes, will enable state and local governments to link previously far-flung employees and agencies, decrease paperwork, reduce system administration costs and dramatically improve efficiency.
Or will they? "This seems too similar to the hue and cry that was raised over client/server — [that it is] the next silver bullet that will solve everybody's problems," said Gary Swindon, director of Michigan's Office of Computing and Telecommunications. "For people who have gone to the trouble to build an infrastructure, manage it and understand what they can do with it, I don't see any value in [an intranet]. It's just another place to throw money."
But whether intranets will prove to be a panacea for state and local governments or a Trojan horse filled with wayward Internet believers, they show little sign of tapering off. According to state and local market research firm G2R (formerly G2 Research Inc.), about 30 percent of state and local government agencies will have cross-agency intranets in place by 2000 — well off the 80 percent pace expected from the banking and manufacturing sectors.
Causes for slower adoption vary, but the leading factors are higher technology and organizational barriers in state and local governments. "The typical red herrings thrown up by agency users are security and performance problems," said Mike Connor, G2's director of electronic commerce. Also, many agencies face bandwidth saturation, proprietary systems unable to link for basic cross-agency e-mail and a vast amount of information not yet available in electronic formats.
Yet organizational problems may be the real killer. Many state and local agencies lack an "IT brain trust," Connor said, to champion technology upgrades that would make intranets possible. Also, most agency rank-and-file lack the computer skills to navigate local-area networks. Finally, agency offices wield information-based power, and granting access to information across agencies borders pushes against such power bases.
Still, some agencies are bullish on intranets. The New York State Department of Health's (DOH) statewide Health Information Network (HIN) is essentially an intranet linking 38 of 57 county health departments to each other, the central state agency and the Internet.
HIN allows local departments to submit and receive required communicable-disease reports online. Users can search databases for disease information or deliver reports on communicable diseases by submitting Web-based forms electronically. The local county health departments also query case-level records and generate statistical reports based on information provided by the county and state.
There are currently 61 communicable diseases that require such forms; before HIN, each county had to submit paper forms. "That was a horrible, time-consuming and redundant task," said Ivan Gotham, director of Healthcom Network Systems Management, Information Systems and Health Statistics for the DOH.
The HIN intranet uses two Sun Microsystems Inc. SPARC 1000 servers running Netscape Communications Corp.'s Netscape Commerce Server, SAS software, Sybase Inc. client software and CGI utilities. The database server runs under a Sybase SQL server. Security — considered critical because of the sensitivity of health information — is handled in layers of Secure Socket Layer encryption, specialized access and authentication software and devices, and a firewall leased from Advanced Network&Services Inc.
In addition to reporting on communicable diseases, the DOH uses the intranet to connect health department staffs statewide, providing e-mail to link hospitals and nursing homes and to promote data and information exchange, Gotham said. During the next year, the majority of counties will be on board with their own disease-tracking system, he said, prompted by the state's efforts to link all counties via frame relay during that time period.
Florida Floats Intranet Vision
Farther south, planning is under way for Vision 2000, a $20 million capital improvement plan to put a modern network in place for Pinellas County, a Florida gulf community of 900,000 people. There, intranets will form the application layer of the network by running Web-based applications for internal and public information access countywide.
Although enormous technical challenges lie ahead, the county's director of management information systems believes those will pale against the problems of managing the impact of the network on the staff itself. "My job — the technical part — is really only 10 percent," said Alfred J. Leiser. "The other 90 percent is political — getting everyone to face the right direction."
Today the county's applications run on a hodgepodge of platforms; property appraisers use a Digital Equipment Corp. VAX, while the sheriff's office uses an IBM Corp. AS/400. The circuit courts use an IBM 4300 system, and the county's mainframe is an IBM 9672. Pinellas County also has more than 20 RS/6000 application servers throughout the region, one of which hosts a geographic information system. Only about a quarter of the 4,000 PCs in use access the network. Even so, county staff use a range of e-mail and list server systems.
During the next seven to 10 years, the county will replace its mainframe technology with an Oracle Corp. database and will put in place an Asynchronous Transfer Mode network for high-speed data transmission. Common e-mail, financial and personnel software will run on all desktops, and browsers will be used for information retrieval. The new Web-based network is expected to cut down the time it takes to interact with other agency systems, which now can take more than 15 seconds per transaction.
Pennsylvania Grows Infrastructure First
In developing its intranet applications, the Pennsylvania state government focused first on its network infrastructure. Currently, officials are developing applications for an intranet that runs on a fiber-based metropolitan-area network (MAN), a 100 megabits/sec loop that links 40 agencies in the Harrisburg area.
Compared with the 1988-vintage SNA network, the MAN offers higher data-transfer speeds and greater capacity for moving large documents between agencies. Last year's price for data communications was estimated at only $24,000, compared with the whopping $1.4 million it cost to haul data only four years earlier. Part of the savings were achieved by cutting the number of expensive mainframe front-end controllers and copper circuits at $2,400 per month.
From the savings in data communications, the state was able to fund its entire intranet project. The network now uses a single communications protocol — TCP/IP — which makes it easier for agencies to share data electronically.
"We've reduced paperwork by sending electronic files instead of magnetic tapes via sneakernet," said Charlie Gerhards, director of the Commonwealth Technology Center (CTC), which developed the intranet.
The state is moving information off mainframes and onto a Sun Enterprise 4000 Server running Solaris. Intranet users access information on the server using Microsoft Corp.'s Access to query for information stored in an Oracle7 Version 3.3 database running on the server. Payroll and purchasing data is available on the intranet, which users browse via Netscape or Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Demands for intranet access are expected to increase dramatically as more users learn how to download the ODBC drivers necessary to link Access with the Oracle7 database. "At first, we sent technicians to install the driver," Gerhards said. "But with 40,000 devices on the network, we soon found that an intranet application designed to provide instructions and the ability to download the software was a much more feasible approach."
The intranet also is being used to inventory data circuits and to help agencies forecast their monthly expenses by providing information on rate schedules and bill-back charges for telecommunications costs incurred by each agency. Users can even use the intranet to report trouble on the network to the CTC data center.
While these appear to be win-win strategies, doubters exist nevertheless.
"I may be spoiled because we've invested a lot of time, trouble and effort here to build a communications infrastructure that makes sense," Swindon said. "The siren song of the intranet is that it gives me a way to go out and around that structure, and, by the way, it will be faster, better, cheaper. But I haven't seen enough returns to make me believe that at all."
WAN Meets MAN in Michigan
In Michigan, agencies are linked via a wide-area network backbone to a MAN in Lansing, the state capital. The state supports the primary LAN standards within agencies, including Banyan Systems Inc.'s Vines, Novell Inc.'s NetWare and Windows NT. On the WAN, the standard is TCP/IP. The state also maintains a standard e-mail package, Novell's GroupWise, which supports calendaring, workflow and remote-access features.
Agencies should guard against "looking for a quick-and-dirty way out of a legacy network architecture that has grown like topsy" by turning to intranets, Swindon said. "That may become a surrogate for doing the harder thing, which is taking a look at what your real requirements are. You always have to look at what you are getting for your investment long term because it's the administration costs that will determine the wisdom of what you've done."
And the cost of failure to submit your network plans to such analysis — whether or not you move to intranets? "You could wind up doing something similar to what developers did in the 1960s and 1970s with mainframes: They put together a quick-and-dirty solution that was never intended to be around for more than a year. And here we are 20 years later looking at fixing code for Year 2000," Swindon said.
An intranet is simply the internal use of Internet-derived technology. "That's why you can't just go out and buy an intranet," said David Whitten, vice president of electronic workplace and advanced computing environments for the Gartner Group, Stamford, Conn.
Deploying an intranet challenges state and local governments to bring much of their network infrastructure up to speed in order to take advantage of connectivity and ease of access of information, said Whitten, who sees three main phases of intranet development.
The first step in deploying an intranet enterprisewide involves honing in on the publishing of information. In this step, organizations provide detailed agency information online and must adhere to rules of structure, content ownership and upkeep to maintain information as a useful resource. But there is a drawback to focusing on publishing as the goal of any intranet or Internet system. "Organizations find they often must restructure again to add newer, more interactive applications down the line," he said.
The second phase involves enterprise collaboration, extending Web technology to news groups and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol e-mail systems-even groupware-related tasks such as calendaring and scheduling-over an intranet.
The third phase enables users to interact with databases and involves the use of the latest tools, such as Java, to develop queries that can access a corporate database. For example, if an employee wants to access information on a 401(k) retirement plan to increase his deduction to the maximum allowed, he must write a query to find out what percentage of his salary is going toward the retirement plan and inform the company's human resources system to increase that percentage by a specific amount. This type of application requires interactivity that can make intranets an invaluable asset for users and organizations, Whitten said.
Ultimately, Whitten maintains that the most successful organizations have centralized the planning and implementation of intranets while decentralizing the control and ownership of information toward the agencies that house the information.
Barbara DePompa Reimers is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md. She can be reached at [email protected]