Using Internet-style groupware on the intranet

Wednesday Apr 12th 2000 by Jon Udell
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The Usenet is the mother of all groupware applications. Yet intranets rarely exploit the technology, although it's widely deployed and readily available. Here's why, and how, you should.

Almost every day of my working life brings a fresh demonstration of the power and utility of Internet-based groupware. Here's a typical example. While logged in to a client's Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris server, I triggered this unfamiliar error message: "IO object version 1.20 does not match $ 1.15." What that meant, in general, is that something was wrong with a Perl module that I needed for an application I was building. What it meant specifically was a puzzle. I'm no Solaris expert, and Perl wasn't exhibiting this behavior on my own NT and Linux boxes. I faced the usual choices: fix the problem, or work around it. But which? And in either case, how?

For the last few years, the planetary knowledge base known as the Usenet has been my first line of defense in these situations. Sure enough, plugging the error message into the DejaNews search engine immediately yielded a posting rich with vital clues:

- A Canadian developer named Oleg had run into the same problem
- also on a Solaris system
- using the same slightly-outdated version of Perl that my client's system had

Nobody ever answered Oleg's plea for help. It's tempting to regard his solitary Usenet posting as a futile act of communication. In fact, it was extremely helpful to me (and possibly to others as well). Oleg's message enabled me to:

- Confirm that the problem wasn't specific to my client's system
- Strengthen a hypothesis that a Perl upgrade might fix the problem
- Contact Oleg by email and suggest the hypothesis to him
- Learn that he had already tested and rejected it
- Learn that he had contacted the module's authors and failed to solve the problem

Armed with this knowledge, I was able to spare my client the time and effort required to do an upgrade that wouldn't have helped me get my job done. I concluded that while the problem was likely fixable (most things are, eventually) the path of least resistance lay in the direction of a workaround. So I used CPAN -- the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network -- to find another Perl module that did what I needed without nasty side effects on Solaris.

Defining groupware

What is groupware? I define it in a very general way as any technology that links human minds into collaborative relationships. Since we'll have to wait a few years for direct mind hookups, current groupware systems rely on the exchange of documents that record what we do and say.

The Internet has widely popularized three distinct -- yet interrelated -- methods of document exchange: the Web, email, and Usenet conferencing. The confluence of these modes makes the Internet the mother of all groupware applications. I found Oleg on the Usenet, by way of a browser, and then we communicated using email. During this process an ad-hoc group formed, including Oleg and myself primarily, but also indirectly some Perl module authors and some of my client's technical staff. Unbounded by time, geography, or corporate affiliation, this group briefly focused attention on a problem, pooled knowledge about it, then disbanded. This is Internet groupware in action.

Although we use these modes of communication every day, we tend to take them for granted. That's one reason why we don't exploit them as fully as we should on our intranets. Another is that most intranets fail to recreate the full suite of groupware tools available on the Internet. Intranets always use Web servers to host applications and serve files. And they always support e-mail. But they rarely offer Usenet-style conferencing services tailored for company-wide, departmental, and workgroup use. There's a huge opportunity to deliver these services on intranets, and huge benefits flow from doing so.

The intranet groupware opportunity

The standard Internet client -- specifically, the Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. browsers -- handles all three Internet groupware modes. It's not just a browser, it's also a mail client and a news (that is, NNTP, or Net News Transfer Protocol) client. Netscape names these three components Navigator, Messenger, and Collabra. Microsoft calls them Internet Explorer and Outlook Express (the latter referring jointly to a mailreader and newsreader). Although some people have argued that Outlook Express isn't as integral to Microsoft's product as the Messenger/Collabra pieces are to Netscape's, current events prove otherwise. Forced last month to withdraw the beta version of Outlook Express from its site, because of an injunction alleging unfair email filtering, Microsoft found that it could not separate Outlook Express from the browser, and had to withdraw the whole package.

"News is a great way for field and factory folks to communicate without having to go up and down the management protocol stack," says Subbarao. "Tough questions are regularly answered by people who know the answers best."

Hewlett Packard Co. technical consultant Kartik Subbarao

Although the standard Internet client is tri-modal, most intranets aren't. Relatively few people use the NNTP newsreader bundled with their browsers. Why not? From a Usenet perspective, there's no real reason to. Web sites such as DejaNews and SuperNews deliver browser-based access to the Usenet's knowledge base. Although the newsreader is a richer and more powerful conferencing tool than the browser, the chaotic flux of the Usenet affords little chance to use a newsreader to its fullest capability. Most people realize that the Microsoft and Netscape newsreaders can post plain-text messages to newsgroups, and attach MIME-encoded binary files. But few people know that they can also:

  • Compose and display HTML messages
  • Communicate securely over SSL
  • Authenticate using client certificates (digital IDs)
  • Do fulltext search of an indexed newsgroup (Netscape Collabra only)
  • Forward email directly to newsgroups

These features are either unwelcome or unsupported on the public Usenet. But if you create your own private Usenet -- that is, a set of permanent, non-replicating, non-expiring newsgroups that live only on your intranet and serve only your users -- you'll find that NNTP conferencing enhances intranet groupware even more than it enhances Internet groupware.

Kartik Subbarao, a technical consultant with Hewlett-Packard Co., says HP has been working this way since 1982. HP runs more than 100 intranet-wide newsgroups (see table 1). But NNTP conferencing is very decentralized; there are also many divisions and departments running their own more specialized newsgroups.

"News is a great way for field and factory folks to communicate without having to go up and down the management protocol stack," says Subbarao. "Tough questions are regularly answered by people who know the answers best."

A sampling of HP's company-wide newsgroups

These are a few of more than 100 company-wide newsgroups on the HP intranet. Like the public Usenet, HP's private newsgroups capture knowledge and experience in a variety of areas.
hp.jobsInternal job postings
hp.infosystemsThe web and related technologies.
hp.unixUNIX
hp.os.ms-windowsWindows
hp.news.adminHow to create and delete newsgroups
hp.miscVarious and sundry things.

Intranet groupware in action

Subbarao's own division, HP Consulting, is geographically distributed with over 5,000 employees worldwide, most working from their homes or from field offices. The consulting sub-hierarchy of newsgroups is supported by two Netscape Collabra servers, one in the U.S. and one in Sweden.

HP's consultants are mobile, and often aren't in offices with fat Internet pipes. NNTP conferencing, which was built for marginal networks, works well in this environment. What about intermittently-connected users? "We point people to the offline capabilities of mail/newsreaders like the Netscape client," says Subbarao.

Consulting projects use newsgroups to share documents and conduct threaded discussions. Advantages include the following:

- People don't have to keep all documents on their own systems
- Posting a document to a newsgroup is much easier than posting to a Web site
- The project's message base is automatically indexed (by Collabra Server) and fulltext searchable (by the Netscape Collabra client)
- Shared project bulletin boards enable serendipitous interaction

The last point is subtle but crucial. In an email-only culture, the recipient of every message must be specified. But often you can't know who your message should reach. Nor is it practical to cc: everything to everyone. When project communication flows through shared newsgroup channels, in addition to private email channels, it creates a kind of "watercooler" effect. In the physical office, chance associations and overheard remarks have a powerful -- if intangible -- effect on productivity. The virtual office eliminates many of these interactions; newsgroups can help restore them.

Overcoming roadblocks

Although the benefits are clear, it's often difficult or even impossible to get people to share information freely. "People just won't do it," says Eric Brown, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. It's not just a problem with Internet-style groupware, either. Even Lotus Notes, the Cadillac of groupware systems, rarely produces the types of knowledge transfer that companies deploying it hope for, says Brown. Why? Lip service notwithstanding, corporate power structures tend to reward hoarding rather than sharing information.

There's no simple answer to this problem. One key strategy that can help is proper scoping of intranet newsgroups (see Figure 1). Members of a project team will feel awkward airing departmental business in company-wide forums, and much of that stuff would be inappropriate for the wider audience. So it's crucial to build discussion environments that match up with the org chart.

It's also important to respect everyone's technology preferences. Not everyone likes the "pull" aspect of newsgroups; some prefer the "push" of email. So Subbarao's team set up bidirectional gateways between mailing lists and newsgroups.

Another key strategy is based on the idea of enlightened self interest. Why should I bother to put a document into a central repository? If I develop this habit I'll make my company a bit more competitive in the long run, but this doesn't feel like a concrete benefit to me. More compelling, perhaps, is the fact that I can later find the document myself, using my road PC, my office PC, or my home PC. Intranet newsgroups can be effective repositories for the flurry of routine documents that otherwise end up scattered across multiple mailboxes and hard-disk directories.

Although newsgroup technology predates the Web, it hasn't penetrated intranets to nearly the degree Web technology has. Some people think emerging standards, notably WebDAV (Web distributed authoring and versioning), will supersede NNTP as the dominant mode of Internet-based document sharing. Maybe so. But at the moment there are few WebDAV tools available; meanwhile there's an NNTP client on every intranet desktop, and many free or inexpensive NNTP servers exist. Internet-style groupware is easy to implement on the intranet, and it can pay rich dividends. Of course, as is true of all things, you get out of it what you put into it.  IJ


About the author:

Jon Udell was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, forthcoming from O'Reilly and Associates. His home page is http://udell.roninhouse.com/.


Figure 1: Newsgroup scopes: intranet, extranet, Internet

On the intranet, project teams can collaborate mostly in designated private forums. Issues raised there can when necessary float up to the company-wide level. Likewise, issues raised at the company-wide level sometimes need to move down into departmental forums. At the intranet/extranet boundary, project teams can confer with business partners or customers. An example of the former: a project team coordinates its work with outside consultants and contractors. An example of the latter: a project team conducts a virtual focus group with invited customers.

The same news/mail client used for these modes of collaboration also, of course, works for Internet-based collaborations. Members of a project team can join communities of developers at corporate sites such as netscape.com and microsoft.com, and also on the Usenet.

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