Intranet management made easier

Tuesday Oct 12th 1999 by Amanda Mitchell Henry
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With 70% of the time spent on an intranet devoted to maintenance, automated management can really save the day.


There's no question that corporate intranets have heated up from a simmer to a boil. In the early days these Web-based infrastructures provided employees with static information, but increasingly companies are choosing to use their intranets as the network over which they run mission-critical applications. Today, intranets help companies streamline and automate internal business procedures. If employees can take care of their own HR needs, for example, then the company needs fewer HR employees. Those resources can be spent on sales, marketing, and product development people.

While the tasks of information sharing, information publishing, e-mail, and document management are the primary use of intranets, applications such as accessing legacy host information, calendaring, workflow management, and providing remote access to the network are increasingly becoming part of the corporate intranet landscape.

With all of these activities readily available via an intranet, access is booming. According to a recent study by market researcher International Data Corp., of Framingham, Mass., nearly half of the respondents with 1,000 or more employees, approximately 41%, permitted intranet access to the entire company. Among companies with less than 100 employees, 84% permitted companywide intranet access.

The shift in an intranet's importance in the corporate workplace is paralleled by an increasing pressure to keep these Web-based systems well managed. "Companies are spending a lot of internal resources managing intranets," says Mike Comiskey, an analyst with IDC's Intranet Strategies research program. "A lot of content from unsanctioned, subintranet sites is beginning to pop up, and moving forward companies will need to more centrally manage" this information, he says.

As companies face this management challenge the need to find tools, either off-the-shelf or developed in-house, to help do that job has increased. A plethora of products is available; choosing the best means analyzing company systems and goals and working within those parameters. Combined with thorough planning, automating the management process saves more than time and money--it makes an intranet run smoothly.

Users in action

Arizona's Maricopa County took this lesson to heart. The County's three-year-old intranet is used by all County departments, and the County government has an aggressive rollout plan for upgrading.

Initially, the intranet was used fundamentally for sharing information such as policies, procedures, and forms. But by the intranet's second generation--it's redesigned every year or so--the County rolled out more sophisticated uses such as its homegrown, line-of-business application, Agenda Central.

Agenda Central carries out the complex board-of-supervisors' approval process, replacing a cumbersome and time-intensive paper-based system. By submitting a request to Agenda Central, which submits forms to all bodies required for approval simultaneously rather than serially, Maricopa County estimates that it shaved the time it takes for an agenda item to be routed and approved from eight weeks to about two.

The third revision focuses on customization. This upgrade has less to do with the look and feel of the interface, and more to do with delivering the appropriate content for each employee's particular job. All of the County's users will be able to personalize their interface to the intranet, referred to as the Electronic Business Center (EBC), and have certain items, such as pull-down menus, appear however they prefer.

Several collaborative and messaging benefits are also available in this redesign. Maricopa County has written a front end to Microsoft Outlook public folders to create a bulletin board system. With this system collaborative computing or information sharing can be carried out through the EBC. A comprehensive calendaring system shows all County and/or personnel events, such as hikes and major meetings. Technology tips and tricks are also available.

"We integrated EBC with Microsoft Outlook 98 so users can have EBC as their homepage and it also has an interface to a groupware client so it can show, for example, your tasks or messages," says Paul Allsing, director of Maricopa's EBC. "[Our Web site] demonstrates the Web interface can do more than simply publishing; it can do tasks through automation."

Because the County's intranet is so active--it receives approximately 1,200 visits per day and permits access to approximately 3,000 users--keeping the EBC up and running is a top priority, so the County deployed a monitoring and self-healing application. SiteScope 4.5 from Freshwater Software Inc. monitors all of the County's servers and pings for active service. In the event that a server has crashed or its performance has slowed dramatically, the software will automatically generate a page to one of the IS staff members. If that page goes unanswered, the software will automatically reboot the server.

"SiteScope allows us to be more responsive when there is a problem… before we put this tool in place, we would get a call from the user asking if the site is up or if it is slow," says Allsing. "With an automated tool sitting out there pinging the site, we know quickly if there is a problem that can be detected."

The County is running Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) version 4.0 on Windows NT servers; it has a total of 30 NT-based Internet, intranet, and groupware servers. The underlying database is SQL server 6.5 and the firewall is Check Point Software Ltd.'s FireWall-1. This Web-oriented infrastructure backs up the County's goals going forward. "The strategic direction for Maricopa County is that any future enterprise applications will be Web-based," says Allsing.


Automating management

While software applications such as SiteScope help ensure that intranet servers are doing their jobs, a variety of management tools exist to assist in other areas. Richard Sturm, president of management consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo., points to application-management and service-level tools as valuable assets in the job of automating the management of intranets.

For example, NetScout Systems Inc. makes a tool, WebCast 2.1, that monitors application activity across the intranet. The network reporting software aims to make the task of generating Java interactive reports on end-to-end Web-based network performance more extensive, faster, and easier.

Another tool, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP OpenView Observer for e-services, puts a cookie on a user's desktop in order to measure the user's experience, monitoring such things as long waiting periods during search efforts. The goal of the tool is to isolate bottlenecks related to Internet access.

ProactiveNet Inc.'s Watch 3.0 monitors service levels for mission-critical application transactions and lets network managers associate service problems with abnormalities in the network, server, firewall, or application.

Products from companies such as RADware Inc. and Resonate Inc. fall into the niche of server-load balancing, a critical issue for most IT organizations trying to keep a Web site up and running.

RADware's FireProof 1.3 distributes traffic among an array of firewalls, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and routers to help ensure that firewall performance is uninterrupted. Resonate's Central Dispatch enables multiple Web servers to act as a single, scalable, and more easily managed service by balancing the traffic load across multiple servers. The company also offers a tool called Commander, which is an event-based management system that heads off server slowdowns or site outages by diagnosing a problem and automatically triggering corrective actions.

Keep the presses running

Despite an array of off-the-shelf management choices, users frequently rely on home-brewed monitoring applications to ensure their intranet sites are running smoothly. The Boston Globe, for example, uses a custom-developed utility to automatically call pages on the intranet to make sure that the application is up and running. If the system is down, this utility can contact the IS staff member on call--via e-mail, telephone, page, or all three--to resolve the problem at hand. To perform a page census or to view usage patterns The Globe uses ISV Dimensional Insight's DI-Diver tool, according to Cynthia Stanton, project manager for The Boston Globe, a wholly owned subsidiary of the New York Times Corp.

The Globe also uses e-mail management for customer service. Deployed solely on the Web, this management technique requires users to log into the server behind the firewall and then gives routing capability to different business units, filters spam, and customizes responses. When problems arise, this system takes note of it. If multiple people are working on the problem, it archives a response so that other employees can learn about the answer being discussed.

Available to more than 2,000 working groups spread over three separate buildings in Boston and two suburban areas, the health of The Globe's intranet is considered critical. As a daily newspaper, each department has a time-sensitive function that is now being enhanced by the newspaper's Web-based information network because The Globe's intranet serves as a collaborative tool.

"The intranet took a cue from The Globe's strong organizational structure and organized the information in terms of existing departments and work groups," says Stanton. The intranet, she explains, is addressing issues such as complex vertical reporting structures where there is an overlap between groups and a need to minimize the spread of redundant information.

The Globe's intranet runs on a combination of servers, including a Digital Equipment Corp. UNIX server, a Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris server, and Windows NT servers that support SQL Server and Lotus Development Corp. Notes. Now in its second redesign, The Globe is in the process of developing more business-related activities on its intranet, an evolution from its initial purpose of serving as a content dump site. For example, users can customize their tool bars with job-related items such as budget or reporting tool links.

"Our intranet is about five years old; it's very robust and there's a lot of information on there, but we found when redesigning it that… a lot of content wasn't being used, even though it was still valid," says Stanton.

Healthy intranets

The Globe's content-centric intranet deployment philosophy follows that of at least one systems integrator familiar in the ways of intranets. No matter what tools IT managers look to for managing their intranets, the key to a healthy and happy Web infrastructure is careful planning from the outset and keeping content fresh, according to Susan Crinnian, president of CCI Networks Inc.

The job of designing a customer's intranet includes plans for how the user will manage the infrastructure and the content going forward, says Crinnian, whose Phoenix, Ariz.-based firm specializes in Internet and intranet technology. Crinnian designs a customer's intranet with enough forethought in planning and strategizing that users will be able to easily keep information updated with just a couple simple tasks that will ensure the intranet remains free of dead links, redundant content, and under-used pages. For example, document usage tools, such as that deployed by The Globe, help determine which pages receive heavy traffic and which do not. Rolled out any other way and an intranet will quickly become outdated, and therefore a failure.

"The key thing is… MIS doesn't want the burden of having a support person constantly coming over to each department," says Crinnian. "All the users have to do is perform a couple of keystrokes to keep information updated."

Promoting the idea that maintenance should occur easily, management for the National Information Center for Educational Media (NICEM) comes in the form of keeping the contents of its intranet-based database in pristine condition. The organization's well thought out intranet is the centerpiece of its job of maintaining a comprehensive database of bibliographic records. The records describe educational, nonprint media such as video, CD-ROM, audio, and film that are used in an educational setting. While the information is collected from the companies that either produce or distribute the materials in the database, NICEM uses the Data Harmony suite of document management tools from Data Harmony Inc. to edit database records. These records are displayed through Netscape 4.5 while standard Windows copying and pasting tools are also used in the process for record editing.

Data Harmony XIS data management system enters and edits the bibliographic records in the NICEM database.

The database design is complex and in need of a specialized management tool. Each record representing a videotape, for example, may be distributed by more than one company. "The database structure allows for subfields for each distributor; and even though within each distributor there may be the same title on more than one format, such as VHS or DVD, the database structure allows for that amount of complexity," says Roy Morgan, director of NICEM in Albuquerque, N.M.

NICEM's database has been electronic for 20 years, but it only transitioned to its freeware, intranet-based form about a year ago to replace a DOS-based system. The database runs on a Linux server, while the Web server is an Apache platform. Its firewall is based on Trusted Information Systems Inc. (TIS), a Firewall Toolkit program designed to help users build a network firewall.

With the Data Harmony tool, NICEM can generate such management items as production reports to see how well each editor is producing. It's also possible to view the numbers of records that are available for a particular distributor.

Whether intranet management means finding a particular tool like Data Harmony or following a particular philosophy, intranets are here to stay and users need to find ways to keep them in good shape, says CCI Networks' Crinnian.

"The reality is that maintaining the intranet is 70% of the intranet, so users need to plan on the front end for how they are going to continue to manage their environments." IJ

About the author:

Amanda Mitchell Henry, a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, can be reached at amandamh@pacbell.net.


A selection of intranet management tools
VendorProductTask
Data Harmony Inc.
Boulder, Colo.
dataharmony.com
Data HarmonyManages and stores text collections in a single format.
Freshwater Software Inc.
Albuquerque, N.M.
freshwater.com
Sitescope 4.5Monitors servers and pings for active service.
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
hp.com
HP OpenView ObserverMonitors bottlenecks for e-services.
ISV Dimensional Insight
Burlington, Mass.
dimins.com.
DI-DiverPerforms multidimensional analysis with integrated reporting.
NetScout Systems Inc.
Westford, Mass.
netscout.com
WebCast 2.1Monitors application activity across the intranet.
NextPoint Networks
Westford, Mass.
nextpoint.com
NextPoint S3 2.0Provides predictive trend analysis and custom and legacy application monitoring.
ProactiveNet Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.
proactivenet.com
Watch 3.0Manages application service levels.
RADware Inc.
Mahwah, N.J.
radware.com
FireProof 1.3Provides server-load balancing.
Resonate Inc.
Sunnyvale, Calif.
resonate.com
Central DispatchProvides server-load balancing.
Resonate Inc.
Sunnyvale, Calif.
resonate.com
CommanderProvides event-based management.

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