Benefits of intranets and extranets
Effective communication, both internally with your staff and externally with your partners and customers, is a key requirement in today's business environment.
An intranet is a private - internal - business network that enables your employees to share information, collaborate, and improve their communications.
An extranet enables your business to communicate and collaborate more effectively with selected business partners, suppliers and customers. An extranet can play an important role in improving business relationships and supply chain management.
This guide looks at the potential benefits of intranet and the benefits of extranet to your business. It describes the similarities between the two types of networks, their differences and some of the key issues you will need to consider, such as costs and maintenance.
What is an intranet?
In essence, an intranet is a business' own private website. It is a confidential business network that uses the same underlying structure and network protocols as the internet, and is protected from unauthorised users by a firewall.
Intranet vs extranet
The main characteristic of an intranet is that it is closed to the public. Extranets, in contrast, are open to the public and typically offer features external users (such as customers, partners and contractors) can access. See what is an extranet.
Intranets are secure and easily accessible via a web browser. As such, they enable businesses to be flexible and control office overheads by allowing employees to work from almost any location, including their home and customer sites.
Examples of intranet
Intranets typically look like a private version of the internet. They use HTTP or other internet protocols to allow sharing of the organisational information and computing resources among employees. You can also use an intranet to facilitate teleconferencing and working in groups.
Certain types of intranets, known as online offices or web offices, merge regular features of intranets with those often found in software such as Microsoft Office. Creating a web office allows you to organise and manage information and share documents and calendars using a familiar web browser function, accessible from anywhere in the world.
Intranet content and features
Intranets can host far more than just company information and policies. Types of content and features commonly found on intranets include:
- administrative - calendars, emergency procedures, meeting room bookings, procedure manuals and membership of internal committees and groups
- corporate - business plans, client/customer lists, document templates, branding guidelines, mission statements, press coverage and staff newsletters
- financial - annual reports and organisational performance
- IT - virus alerts, tips on dealing with problems with hardware, software and networks, policies on corporate use of email and internet access and a list of online training courses and support
- marketing - competitive intelligence with links to competitor websites, corporate brochures, latest marketing initiatives, press releases, presentations
- human resources - appraisal procedures and schedules, employee policies, expenses forms and annual leave requests, staff discount schemes, new vacancies
- individual projects - current project details, team contact information, project management information, project documents, time and expense reporting
- external information resources - route planning and mapping sites, industry organisations, research sites and search engines
Read also about the benefits of intranets.
Benefits of intranet
Intranets are extremely useful as a business tool. Few of the key intranet benefits include:
- Better internal communications - intranets can act as communication hubs for staff. You can store corporate information such as memos, staff news and announcements centrally and access at any time.
- Sharing of resources and best practice - you can create a virtual workspace and community to facilitate information storing, sharing and collaborative working. An intranet can also act as a training platform when providing online training content to staff.
- Improved customer service - better access to accurate and consistent information by your staff can lead to enhanced levels of customer service.
Advantages of intranet for business efficiency
You can improve your business' efficiency by using the intranet for:
- publishing - delivering information and business news as directories and web documents
- document management - viewing, printing and working collaboratively on office documents such as spreadsheets or databases
- training - accessing and delivering various types of e-learning to the user's desktop
- workflow - automating a range of administrative processes, including dealing with holiday requests, staff performance reviews and appraisals, meeting room and equipment booking, etc
- front-end to corporate systems - providing a common interface to corporate databases and business information systems
- email - integrating intranet content with email services so that information can be distributed effectively
It is a good idea to give your intranet a different image and structure from your customer-facing website. This will help to give your internal communications their own identity and prevent employees from confusing internal and external information.
How to set up a company intranet?
Any business, regardless of its size, can benefit from creating a simple company intranet to store important information and documents - see the benefits of intranets.
How to build an intranet from scratch?
There are many important questions to consider when creating an intranet, such as deciding:
- what size should it be
- what functionality should it have
- how much will it cost
- who will be using the intranet - eg all staff or specific teams or departments
- what will you use it for - eg file storage, collaborative working, bulletin board, etc
- what type of documents or databases will it feature
- what content will it hold and who will create, publish and manage it
Look at your requirements carefully to make sure your investment is worthwhile. It might help to speak to your staff and see which features they would find most useful in an intranet.
Options for hosting intranets
Once you define the functionality you want, look at the technical aspects of developing an intranet. Think about things like:
- how will it look and what templates will need to be devised
- what content management system will you use
- what other applications it needs to support
- what security precautions need to be in place
- how much bandwidth you will need
The biggest consideration will be whether to create and host your intranet in-house or externally, for example in the cloud. Consider the pros and cons of internal or external intranet hosting.
How much does it cost to build an intranet?
There are a number of costs you will need to take into account when setting up and running your intranet. These include:
- server costs
- server administrator services, especially if contracted
- intranet development and design
- intranet software costs
- application development
- content management systems
- security hardware and software
- staff training
- ongoing maintenance
Once you know your budget, functionality and technical requirements, you should define your specifications and approach potential suppliers. Find out how to choose an IT supplier for your business.
Internal or external intranet hosting
You can host your intranet internally (in-house) or externally on a third-party server or in the cloud. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the options.
Benefits of internal hosting
To set up a secure and reliable intranet in-house, you will need five main components:
- webserver to host it on, including server hardware and software
- a computer network
- security mechanisms, such as firewall hardware and software, and back up systems
- content management software for creating, publishing and managing content on the intranet
- other web-based business applications, eg for conferencing, customer relationship management, e-learning, etc
Setting up servers and software to run the intranet in-house will require a certain level of technical expertise or, alternatively, involving an IT supplier or consultant to help with the project. See how to set up a company intranet and choose an IT supplier for your business.
However, once you have the expertise and the infrastructure in place, hosting your intranet in-house will most likely deliver an effective system, with good controls and security options. It will also assure you that all the confidential data held on the intranet is kept safe on-site, minimising the risk of misuse and data breaches.
External intranet hosting pros and cons
Cloud or third-party intranet hosting may be good options to consider if:
- you don't have your own intranet infrastructure or expertise to set it up
- you are running a small business with no dedicated IT staff
- your network server has limited capacity
- you don't want to commit to a large investment in new hardware and software
Some of the concerns with external intranet hosting include:
- security - your data is exposed and handled by a third party
- costs - initial set up fees may be lower in comparison to in-house hosting, but additional costs for technical support, maintenance or exceeding upload/download quotas can arise
- customer support - you are relying on their technical support in case of any issues
- technical support - the third party provider may not support all the technologies and applications you would ideally wish to have
What is an extranet?
An extranet is a private network similar to an intranet, but typically open to external parties, such as business partners, suppliers, key customers, etc. The main purpose of an extranet is to allow users to exchange data and applications, and share information.
Reasons to use an extranet
An extranet can be a useful tool for the following business needs:
- using online ordering, electronic order tracking and inventory management internally or externally, with selected partners
- working flexibly to meet the demands of larger companies, by adopting new technologies and enabling the exchange of business information and transactions
- facilitating a cheap and efficient way for businesses to connect with their trading partners and suppliers, and allowing them access to the information they need 24 hours a day
- automating the trading tasks between you and your trading partners, in order to strengthen business relationships and integrate your business firmly within their supply chain
An extranet can also be used by staff working remotely, eg those in sales or customer support, or home workers.
Key issues to consider
Bear in mind that once you make parts of your business data available to trading partners, they will expect it to be:
- up to date
- secure at all times
Availability and security are key factors in the success of an extranet. You should define the group of your extranet users clearly and protect access by rigorous identification routines and security features.
You may also require significant resources to keep the content of the extranet accurate and up to date. This might involve staff training and using CMS to manage intranets and extranets.
Benefits of extranet
Extranets can offer a range of benefits to your business from lowering costs to producing faster results and improving the quality of service to customers.
Advantages of extranet
Key benefits of extranets allow you to:
- communicate and collaborate more effectively - with clients, customers and stakeholders via a secure network
- integrate supply chains - eg consolidate processes such as online ordering, order tracking and inventory management
- reduce costs - eg make manuals and technical documentation available online to trading partners and customers
- improve business relationships - because of the close collaborative working that extranets support
- improve customer service - eg give customers direct access to information and enable them to resolve their own queries
- simplify processes - eg use a single user interface between you and your business partners
- secure your communications - exchanges take place in a controlled and secure environment
- share news - for example, of product development exclusively with partner companies
- work flexibly - extranet allows remote and mobile staff to access core business information 24 hours a day, irrespective of location
How to build a secure extranet?
If you are considering introducing an extranet into your business, make sure that it is flexible enough to meet your current needs, as well as any future requirements as your business grows.
Purpose of your extranet
An extranet can add value to your business by helping you communicate and collaborate more effectively with clients, customers, and partners. See what is an extranet.
However, before you set out to create an extranet site, you must consider some important. For example, you should:
- define the purpose and intended audience of your extranet
- determine what return on investment you expect
- develop a content management strategy
- consider security issues and threats
Make your project objectives clear from the start. Ask yourself:
- Will you restrict access to your site, or will you allow all of your customers to use it?
- Do you want to promote flexible working by catering to your remote workforce?
- How will you measure the success of your investment?
Decide which extranet features to include
Extranets can take different forms. Depending on who your users are, you may want to include a different set of features in your extranet. Some common elements include:
- search functionality
- easy to use interface
- web-based access
- self-service applications
- discussion forums
- content or links aggregation
Think about the type of information and content you wish to offer to the extranet users. For example:
- company policies, news, forms and corporate branding
- a shared online document library
- information about the services or products that you provide to customers, eg service manuals, marketing materials, product galleries etc
- online tools, such as product registration, warranty claims etc
Find information to help you plan your website content and structure.
Technical considerations for extranets
To host and manage your extranet in-house, you will need:
- webserver hardware and software - the size of the server will depend on the number of potential users and whether or not you will need a lot of bandwidth to support audiovisual content, eg video feeds
- computers connected via a local area network - a closed, private network
- firewall software and hardware - to prevent unauthorised access from outside your organisation
- a content management system - to add and update intranet content
Alternatively, you could commission an external provider to design, maintain and 'host' your extranet for a monthly fee. In this case, users will log on to the extranet via the provider's website. This may be suitable if your business is just starting up.
Find out how to choose an internet service provider for your business.
Extranet support costs
Running the extranet site on a day-to-day basis may incur certain costs. For example, you may require technical support or additional staff to help you manage the extranet content.
Remember that security is paramount since any security incident will directly affect you as well as your key business partners. You should establish what levels of security are provided when choosing a technology solution. Read about IT security.
Content management for intranets and extranets
You should aim to keep any information on intranets or extranets up-to-date and accurate. The easiest way to ensure this is to use content management systems (CMS) for managing and updating information.
What is a content management system?
A CMS is a system for adding, managing and publishing content to an intranet, extranet or a website. The system has a simple web-browser interface, which makes it easy to use even for those without prior IT expertise.
Content is created within the CMS using templates, which allow you to:
- input data easily
- ensure that content is displayed consistently across the site
- manage existing content more effectively
CMS features that are particularly useful when managing intranets and extranets include:
- user rights administration - to define who can publish, edit, review and manage information
- password control - leading to a high level of data security
- high performance search solutions
- integration with other systems - such as customer or corporate databases, or internal platforms