Web Development

System Design: Building your own intranet infrastructure

The innovation and synergy generated by many enterprise intranets cannot be denied. However, developing intranet infrastructure must be carefully planned in order to make a truly effective enterprise-wide tool.

If your organization is like most, your intranet infrastructure was never a priority until it had already grown into a mess. The intranet wasn't a planned addition to the network. It grew out of a hodgepodge of Web applications that were added together without regard for the kind of technology supporting the application or its location.

However, one day someone looks up and acknowledges the huge mess that's been created because no one can find anything they want. There are a dozen or more servers, each with its own specialized purpose, that infrequent users can never remember how to find. Someone finally stands up and says that you have to clean up this mess. That's a great idea, but how do you do it?

Understand what you're building
The first key to cleaning up your particular intranet mess is to understand exactly what you're being asked to build. Intranets mean different things to different organizations, and even to different people within the same organization. Before you begin to build the unifying pieces that bring your intranet together, you need to know which of these models best fits your intranet needs:
  • A dashboard for the corporation—Is the core of your intranet designed to bring together reporting numbers from various Web-based systems into one dashboard where management can see how the company is doing at a glance?
  • Dashboard for internal applications—Is your intranet site simply navigation for getting to all of the internal Web applications that have proliferated over the past several years?
  • File repository—Is it a file repository that is designed to replace or supplement your existing file servers? File-based intranets allow for more categorization of files and more regimented tagging of files, but the increased organization may be resisted by users.
  • Collaboration—If you have teams of people who need to share calendars, to-do lists, or project plans, you'll have a site that focuses on the collaborative opportunities of an intranet. This type of foundation most highly values the ability for groups to maintain their own rapidly changing information.
  • Corkboard—Some organizations use the intranet as a virtual corkboard. It's a place where the human resources department can place notices about changes to health benefits, for example. Some extend this concept further, allowing anyone who has something to say to post a note on the intranet.

Of course, your intranet may be a combination of the above. The key is to understand what you want your intranet site to do and what you know it shouldn't do.

Making it easy to get around
Once you know what you do and don't want your intranet to be, it's time to move on to how users will navigate the site. Intranet site navigation is one of the most important components of an intranet. This is largely because of the diverse components of the intranet and the differing needs of the users. It's unlikely that everyone will go to the same places in the same ways. Here are some tips for your navigation:
  • Consistency—Propagate your menu structure to every site in the intranet. Use frames to keep your intranet navigation on your existing sites. Make sure that, no matter where the users are, they can navigate the entire intranet.
  • Searching—Use searching where possible to allow users to locate the information they want instead of navigating. Whether you build your own, leverage existing tools, or use a mixture of both, make sure that you let your users know what will and won't be searched.
  • Network, not hierarchy—Develop your navigation so that the same item appears in multiple spots. Don't limit a part of your intranet to one location. Place it in the navigation wherever it may be appropriate.

Setting up a navigation system for your intranet may be a frustrating experience, but it's also the one that may make the most difference to your users; spend the necessary time on it. If you need a quick, client-friendly menu, take a look at TreeView.

It's a matter of style
Once you have the site functional, you're likely to get hit with a number of well-meaning comments indicating that the site doesn't "look right." This can be caused by subtle differences in the colors and fonts within a site or across multiple sites in an intranet. The way to solve these inconsistencies is to use a single cascading style sheet (CSS). A CSS encapsulates all of the font, color, and formatting characteristics for a site into a set of reusable templates. If you want to have a link to another page look a certain way, you would use the link style you've designated. If you want to have your headers always appear a certain way, then you'd use your designated heading style.

Additional information
Previous Builder.com articles where you can learn about CSS include:

You've got to keep them separated
Just when you think that you have everything licked, there's another level to apply to your intranet. Because of diverse systems, users must go between the different systems to find the information that they need. Ideally, you would provide a single page view that consolidates the information from multiple systems.

At first glance this looks to be an overwhelming undertaking. When confronted by multiple platforms and a series of different approaches to managing data, it may be mind-numbing to think of how to pull that all together in one Web page. However, you can take a page from the Microsoft handbook on intranet dashboards and use <IFRAME> tags to create inline frames within a larger page. Using this method, the content displayed on one page can literally come from separate Web pages.

Each IFRAME allows content to be added from another, unrelated source. Project management can be a link to your ASP-based project tracking system, accounting information can come from an Apache/PHP-based UNIX server, and file management can come from an ASP.NET Web server in another division. All are brought together by a master page that utilizes <IFRAME> tags to create inline frames within a single page.

<IFRAME> tags are like the traditional HTML framesets, except that they are more versatile in their placement and don't require you to have a single master frameset that contains no content. <IFRAME> tags allow you to have HTML in the same file that the references appear in, which is great for including headers and footers without referencing special files.

The one primary limitation of the <IFRAME> tag is that it is only supported by Internet Explorer—not a problem for most corporations that are standardizing on Internet Explorer, but a good reason why the same technology won't apply well to the Internet.

You can learn how frames can also reduce server traffic in a previous Builder.com article.

Get down to business
Getting the technology right is, unfortunately, just one of the challenges of an intranet project. By far, the most critical issues for building an intranet are not technical, or even organizational. Far more often business issues are the primary barrier to a successful intranet. With that in mind, here are three tips to help the business be successful:
  • Learn what the business needs—Technology in a vacuum can't solve problems. While an intranet is a great idea and might solve some of the pain being felt, it can't be a driving force for business growth unless the business is considered during the development and evolution of the intranet. Evaluate what the business objectives are and determine what things can be done cost effectively to support those objectives from an intranet project.
  • Challenging the organization to think outside the box—Businesses generally won't think of innovative ways to use technology to solve their problems. However, some of the most effective intranet sites do solve problems in new ways. For instance, if your organization needs to track specifications with its customers while maintaining document control, why not extend the intranet into an extranet where customers can get the documents they need—when they need them?
  • Time studies—If you can't determine how to increase efficiency or create new value with an intranet but you're convinced that the value is there, you can consider asking a small sample of your users to keep track of what they do on a daily basis. Looking at the latest HR newsletter, stopping by the bulletin board, reading e-mail, getting status reports, etc., all take time. Evaluate which of those things (and the dozens of other things that a typical user does in a day) can be made more efficient.

Intranet development is a mix of technology, illusion, and business savvy. Putting it all together can create a truly powerful tool for moving an organization forward.
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