Order status, product compatibility, updated delivery terms – manual transmission of data to business partners by mail or phone takes a lot of time. But this can also be done with less effort. The solution: an extranet. But what is an extranet? How do companies use it? This article looks at how to create an extranet, as well as the benefits and some disadvantages of using one.
Every functioning company is characterised by good and smooth communication. This seems to be no easy task, especially for large companies or organisations. Clarifying everything via e-mail or telephone isn’t always the best solution. For example, if employees want to exchange files or store them centrally, visit internal websites, or access news and other content, a uniform access point is an advantage for all employees. An intranet is a central network in which employees can not only exchange information but also use shared programs.
The big advantage is than an intranet is always a separate computer network for internal communication in companies. This enables particularly secure data transmission. All authorised users can log onto the intranet, use all applications, and communicate with each other. This simplifies the workflow greatly. How do you create an intranet, how exactly does it work, and what are the advantages?
What is an intranet?
The word 'intranet' is made up of the Latin, 'intra' and the word 'net '. The intranet is a computer network that only a selected group of people can access. Although it is based on the same standards as the public internet, it isn’t accessible to the public. It is used within a company or an organisation as a company intranet. Users have the ability to access it from anywhere, both internally, and via a VPN connection.
An intranet is the basis and infrastructure for internal company communication. The network’s main objective is to make day-to-day work more efficient and to create a well-functioning work atmosphere. The advantage of an intranet compared to a public network is that data security is a top priority. Since the data exchanged within an intranet doesn’t reach the public internet, this internal network provides sufficient protection against unauthorised external access.
If required, an intranet can be extended by an extranet, which enables information to be exchanged with people outside the company. Both intranet and extranet are only accessible to a predefined group of people, whereas information from the public internet is shared with all internet users. Extranets in companies are often set up for customers to provide them with additional information that shouldn’t be made public.
When is an Intranet used?
Companies, organisations, associations, museums, foundations, and other public institutions take advantage of intranets. Not every network is the same though. The question 'what is an intranet?' is defined by the company itself. The following examples show just how flexible an intranet is:
- Access to applications: The intranet is the entirety of all internally used web applications and provides access to them.
- Creates an overview: It groups files together in an archive that can be accessed by all employees. This can include a file or database server.
- Organises everyday working life: It enables easy collaboration through shared calendars, lists, tasks, and plans.
- Enables message exchange: It takes over the function of a white board. Departments or individual employees can leave messages and notes on it.
Many companies combine several of these or other usage possibilities to create complex private networks that enable them to work with a variety of useful applications.
Universities, for example, use intranets to offer their employees and students the opportunity to share library files such as digital loaned items or other internal university data. This also works from home or other locations using a VPN client. On the one hand, this makes it easier to prepare for seminars and lectures; on the other hand, it reduces the effort and expense involved in procuring relevant articles and books – as long as they are digitally available.
How does an intranet work?
If you want to understand how an intranet works, you should first look at what makes it different to the internet or LAN (Local Area Network). A LAN is the technical basis for the intranet. While internet users communicate publicly, the intranet is isolated from the outside world and only accessible to selected individuals. In general, however, the intranet works in the same way as the internet, since an intranet has internet applications integrated.
A LAN (Local Area Network) connects computers within a building. Only one PC out of these is connected to the internet. The router is the central access point for other devices. Internal servers are added for larger networks. An intranet implements a private network based on the connected PCs within a LAN. However, the intranet is mainly based on a central server. It supports all common and standard internet protocols. These include TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol) and HTTP/HTTPS (hypertext transfer protocol). They provide the basis for data exchange on the intranet by ensuring that connections are established and you’re protected against data loss.
Various typical intranet applications are based on these protocols. This includes websites, e-mail, chats, forums, and databases. In addition to exchanging data or documents, special employee magazines or company-internal rules are often published on an intranet.
The LAN therefore links several computers on which an intranet is implemented. Using software such as Microsoft SharePoint, Slack, IBM, Salesforce, or Oracle, an expert adds additional web services to the intranet, which are typically used in a similar way on the public internet. In principle, an intranet is like a small version of the internet. It is capable of the following:
- It provides web servers so that information and messages can be published.
- It enables access to backend systems.
- It integrates internal web browsers.
- It ensures that e-mail exchange within the company and over the internet is secure.
- It makes it possible to create and use private websites.
- It forms a secure basis for conference calls.
- It acts as a basis for exchanging information through a database to which all authorised people have access.
Securing an intranet
Wherever data is being exchanged and internal web applications are running, high standards of security are indispensable. There are various technologies that can be used to keep an intranet secure. For example, a proxy server. Only the network’s central server has access to the internet, the so-called proxy server. This could be a PC, for example. If users of other PCs want to access the internet from the network, you can only do so via a secure connection to the proxy server.
However, experts most often use firewalls to secure intranets. A firewall is used to protect the company network from unwanted external access. It is interesting to note that an intranet doesn’t necessarily have to be connected to the internet to function. If intranet users need access to the internet, this can be done at any time via a secure connection. On the other hand, external access to the internal network is not possible for just any user on the internet. Intermediate firewalls decide which users are granted access and who are denied access.
Another technology that can be used to secure an intranet is the so-called demilitarised zone (DMZ). Correctly installed by a specialist, it offers optimum security. It serves as a so-called buffer zone between LAN and internet. Demilitarised zones have firewalls at all entrances and exits, which strictly regulate access to data within the network.
Two firewalls are usually used in demilitarised zones: a firewall is switched on between the public network (i.e. the internet) and the demilitarised buffer zone. Another firewall is located between the DMZ and the intranet i.e. the LAN and the internal internet applications.
If employees outside the company want to access the intranet, they can alternatively create a virtual private network i.e. a VPN connection. The public internet is used to set up a virtual network in the form of a closed channel that enables employees to access the company’s internal intranet via secure access. To avoid any security risks, all information is transmitted in encrypted form. For each access attempt, the user must additionally prove their identity by entering the password that they previously decided upon. Think of this secure connection like a tunnel, through which it is possible to shield yourself from other public network users.
Creating an intranet
For installing and technically implementing an intranet, someone with relevant expertise is required. It is important to install an intranet correctly so that there are no security gaps and no-one gets unauthorised access to the internal network. There are two types of portals based on intranets that are conceivable: Enterprise portals or those that are process-oriented. They provide all required applications within the company.
- Enterprise portals score well with a uniform user interface in which users can access the different intranet applications. Particularly if an intranet contains many applications for users, the enterprise version is suited because it is very clear. A company’s employees can see all integrated applications at a glance. In most cases, the user accesses the platform via a web browser. The advantage of this is that users only have to log into the selected intranet portal once, instead of having to log into each individual application.
- Portals specialising in business processes concentrate mainly on processes that are regularly handled. This includes, for example, billing for travel expenses or orders. The processes are usually implemented using separate applications. Unlike the enterprise portal, they are not integrated into the portal itself.
So, if you are planning to create an intranet for your company, you should contact a suitable expert – if you aren’t able to set up the intranet yourself. In addition to the technical equipment, it is also important for the admin to grant all necessary access rights. The following questions need to be answered to introduce an intranet:
- Which people should be involved?
- Who will be responsible for setting up documents and distributing individual access rights?
- What should the layout and design look like in the end?
- What is the purpose of the intranet (e.g. data exchange, white board, shared calendar, lists, etc.)?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the intranet?
The significant amount of time saved is an important factor in favour of the intranet. Instead of sending e-mails to every single person, an intranet offers, among many other functions, an optimal platform for exchanging data. This increases employee productivity, since valuable working time does not have to be used for complex transmission paths.
What’s more, an intranet not only shortens and simplifies communication channels, but also makes them more secure: professionally designed demilitarised zones and intermediate firewalls ensure high security standards. Since an intranet is, by definition, a LAN or WAN that provides internet-specific applications in-house, the data exchange takes place exclusively in a secure environment – unlike the public internet.
With selected intranet applications, employees can make folders, notifications, appointments, or other information available for the entire company or specific groups of people with just a few clicks. Some of the company’s internal processes can be optimised through an intranet.
Depending on the software solution you opt for, an intranet can bring a number of additional advantages:
- Fast data exchange
- Saves more time
- Clearly categorised and logically structured data archive
- Easy communication channels i.e. through integrated chats or blogs
- Internal publication of company rules, information on employee benefits, etc.
- Cost-effective and environmentally friendly by using digital documents instead of printouts
- Easy to implement group work
- Integrates forums and surveys to involve employees in decisions
Acquisition costs and subsequent costs are, however, disadvantages. After all, creating an intranet and paying for the software isn’t enough. To ensure that an intranet functions smoothly and that all security standards are maintained, you have to keep investing time e.g. in updating the software or server. An external or in-house IT specialist will ensure that the network is regularly maintained, backups are done, and any problems that occur are solved as quickly as possible.
In addition, intranet users may end up contributing to decreased security by using unsecure and easy passwords, which is often the case on the internet and means unauthorised persons can easily gain access. To ensure that sufficient security is maintained from the user’s side, users should always choose a secure password so that sensitive data can’t fall into the wrong hands. If the server is accessed via a VPN connection from a private computer, there is also the risk that malware may find its way onto the intranet. Therefore, you should also use an appropriate anti-malware software.