Map out business path before embarking on three-way integration

What are the best technologies for each part of your TCP/IP network? Who should
participate on each portion? Are certain protocols correct in one place but not others?


You won't get any answers unless you know exactly what you're trying to do. This is old
advice, but until you have a firm handle on your business process and how various
participants plug into it, you're not going to get far. It takes planning to shape the
three parts into a delivery vehicle.


Start by identifying the business you want to conduct on the Internet. In most cases,
this will be a glossy public face with photos, indexes and news.


An agency's Internet presence is generally a World Wide Web site, perhaps with a Telnet
connection where people can log on to a server.


Some Web sites have custom-built applications, but interaction is usually limited to
search services, data collection forms and mail-to pointers. Information presented to the
public tends to be general, fragmented and drawn from many sources.


For your eyes only


An intranet is a private network that follows Internet communications protocols.


Its users are members of a specific organization, and its information tends to be
closely held. Intranets are where we're starting to see the heavy-duty, custom
client-server applications that will bring cross-platform access within an organization.


Because such information is business-critical and demands security, choosing the right
Web server software is crucial. There are several expensive intranet server suites with
database and application interfaces, newsgroups and mail services.


Before you invest in such a suite, make sure the server supports Open Database
Connectivity (ODBC) linking to all features of leading databases. Ask the vendor these
questions:


Because the intranet links users to other services, it should support basic Web
browsing, domain name services and lookup, Network File System protocols, Internet
Messaging Access Protocol and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol for mail services, and the
Simple Network Management Protocol.


If you need object services, too, look for support for the Common Object Request Broker
Architecture, or CORBA.


Limited access


An extranet is semi-private; it's something you share with your contractors, trading
partners, or other agencies or citizens that collect and interact with your data.


It also could be the place where regional offices make their reports to headquarters at
the end of the day. Think of extranet users as groups within and outside your organization
that need to work in the same space.


An extranet has a trusted circle of users whose special permissions let them into
portions of a network that otherwise would fall within an intranet.


Whether an extranet server should reside inside or outside your firewall is subject to
debate. I believe in keeping it outside unless you have top-notch security precautions
complete with timed, single-use passwords. Even then, it's best to give the extranet
server its own firewall, because one of the driving forces behind extranet development is
electronic commerce.


The debate continues over what an extranet is. But whether it's a fully private network
that follows Internet protocols or simply a Web site with private elements, transaction
security is crucial.


The easiest way to secure an extranet is to follow the electronic commerce model,
installing a commerce server with a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to handle transactions and
store sensitive data. The Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers
support SSL.


Most government offices start with an Internet presence, expand into intranet services,
then use their intranet to build their extranet.


Custom applications generally reside on the intranet but collect data from and report
results to the extranet.


You might not have all three elements today, but chances are your agency is heading in
that direction. As you develop an intranet, make extranet functions part of your planning.


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for GCN's
parent, Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.


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