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Intranets simplify communication and data management

By 1997, David Cooper had spent a year wrestling with the network he inherited as systems manager at Toronto- and Montreal-based Taxi Advertising & Design, and he still didn't have the upper hand.

Checking a project's status with a colleague at the 40-employee company involved rounds of voice mail. It was nearly impossible to find anything on the company's local-area network. Widely needed client phone numbers were buried in personal Rolodexes, both paper and electronic. Files from past proj-ects were stored in a labyrinth of network drives, directories, and folders. And if you wanted to read one, good luck: Each computer had its own applications, and each user had to figure out which application to use. If chaos were a system, this is what it would look like.

So Cooper, like many of his corporate counterparts in recent years, turned to an intranet. It's a private, companywide information system that looks and acts like a Web site, but only people in the company have access to it. To view files and information, you simply navigate the site with a standard Web browser, clicking on links.

Cooper set up his system in a few hours last February, using a $200 FileMaker Pro database program. Perhaps the simplest and lowest-cost version of an intranet, FileMaker Pro did the trick, with one licensed copy serving an unlimited number of users. Now, Taxi's phone numbers are in a central corporate database, and most employees can check the status of projects. Files from previous jobs can be located quickly by identification number. "Communications are easier and faster," says Cooper, "and we now provide better service to our clients."

NEAT NOTES. Why did Cooper wait so long? Until recently, intranets were technically too demanding for a small business, and, at $10,000 and up, too expensive. In the past year, however, the picture has changed. Now, you can choose among intranet-style software costing from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (table). They're generally easy to set up and maintain. And because the intranet is Web-based, an intranet page can be accessed via Mac, PC, or UNIX workstation.

Useful as FileMaker Pro is, its capabilities are just the beginning of what an intranet can do. Helmers Publishing, a Peterborough (N.H.)-based trade magazine publisher with 62 employees, built an intranet based on a more expensive product called IntraNetics 97. While FileMaker Pro offers little more than the ability to search and sort through a database, IntraNetics serves up such interactive programs as an electronic calendar and address book. Helmers took down its cluttered corkboard and put announcements on attractive Web pages. The bulky personnel and employee manual has gone electronic, too.

Now, any authorized user can update a range of company documents without relying on a network specialist--which means they stay current, says Corporate Marketing Director Carol Sanchioni. As soon as the company settles some security issues, salespeople will be able to tap in through the Web when traveling, too. "I love it," says Carol Nelson, marketing communications manager at the publisher. "I can get all the data I need that affects me at that moment, like notes from a recent trade show."

LONG-DISTANCE. Companies that want to give access to key partners, vendors, and clients can expand the intranet's function with an "extranet" that allows outsiders, with the proper password, to place orders and check their status over the Web.

The burdens of launching an off-the-shelf intranet are relatively light. If you have some experience handling a network, you'll have no problem installing and maintaining many of the small-business-friendly systems. For employees, getting info from the intranet demands practically no skill. Creating basic intranet documents is simple, because you don't need to know computer coding anymore. Common business software, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Corel WordPerfect, can convert routine documents into Web-ready ones with a couple of clicks. (Making them look attractive requires somewhat more skill.) Employees will need some training to post their work on the system. But novices should be able to learn in a day, using such programs as Microsoft Corp.'s Front Page or Adobe PageMill, which can also create much more complex pages.

So which intranet is right for you? On the low end of the price spectrum, FileMaker Pro offers a fairly sophisticated but easy-to-use Web-publishing feature that you install on the company network. This can be done easily by anyone with basic networking experience. But unless you want to do a lot of work customizing, you'll only get to share pages that look like a simple database. It's not suitable for posting large documents, and it may not have the finished look that would impress outsiders.

For even less fuss and minimal setup and administration, consider another solution: Web-based subscription services, such as HotOffice, 3-2-1 Intranet!, eRoom, and Netopia's Virtual Office, which mimic a company intranet and are reached by logging onto a Web site. Subscribers pay a monthly charge of $10 to $30 per user. These Web-based services are great for companies whose workers are widely dispersed. "We needed to work collaboratively, not with someone in the next office but in another office across the country," says Jeffrey Stello, president of IT Financial and interim chief financial officer for Healthy Pet, a startup planning to run veterinary centers in Pennsylvania.

Healthy Pet uses HotOffice, which affordably enables key personnel in three states to work together through bulletin boards and document centers. For example, says Stello, "one person puts together the market demographic study and posts it. I do the financial analysis and post to the same folder, and the whole team can see everybody's input." It requires little technical skill, but there are a few drawbacks to Web-based services. For starters, you can't customize such features as contact managers, and you connect to your site through the Internet, which for most small businesses means dialing out through a modem. That's much slower than a true intranet.

Another option is to buy a Web server, which--with its preinstalled software--is probably the simplest way to run the more complex small-business intranets. These devices come with hard drives for storage, built-in network connections, and Web-server software, at $1,200 to $2,000. Web servers, such as Cobalt Microserver Inc.'s Qube 2700WG, Microtest WebZerver, and Whistle Communications Corp.'s InterJet 100, are for nontechies who want to plug in a device, connect it to an existing network, and build an intranet. Anyone with basic network knowledge should be able to handle it with a little effort.

POLISHED. Finally, for more polished applications than are available on the Web or come with Web servers, consider Helmers' IntraNetics 97. Its features include sophisticated datebook capabilities, comprehensive document-sharing, and graphics-based applications similar to those found on large corporate intranets. IntraNetics is priced attractively for smaller businesses ($995 for up to 25 users), but it requires more technical expertise to configure and maintain than the other intranet approaches here. Also, because it must run on a network that has Windows NT and Web-server software, you'll probably need to hire a consultant to install all three programs unless you're handy with computers.

Still, an intranet may be worth the cost, as David Cooper will attest. It won't solve all your business problems, but at least it will put everyone on the same page.