With our years of experience in web hosting, we’ve found that intranets can be a challenge. But before we discuss hosting intranets any further, let’s define “intranet” in layman’s terms, because even this old term seems to have morphed into various definitions over the years.
What is an Intranet?
Traditionally, an intranet is thought of as a private and restricted internal Web-based site and/or network that is only accessible to users within an organization.
Since intranet traffic is limited only to an organizations users, they are often hosted internally, within the company’s private network, but this is not always the case. Intranets are quite often hosted externally in companies that don't have the IT staff or infrastructure to run them internally (some consider an externally hosted intranet a contradiction in terms, preferring to call it a “secured Internet site”). There are many companies who have a lot to gain from an intranet but neither have nor want the overhead that comes from hosting it internally.
Internal vs. External: What’s the best choice?
So what's the big difference between internal and external intranet hosting? I want to share an analogy that that I read some time ago, since it hits the nail on the head:
The difference between internal and external intranet hosting is like the difference between buying your own house or renting an apartment. As a homeowner, you're responsible for all repairs and improvements. Whether you decide to do this work yourself or contract it to someone else, you're basically responsible for everything yourself. However, when you rent a home, all you need to do is call your landlord to have something done.
So you want or need a new Intranet, but you are unsure if you want to host it internally or externally. To decide whether to host internally or through a hosting provider, you’ll need to ask yourself two important questions: “How important is my Intranet?” and “Do I have the infrastructure in place?”
Internal hosting needs
Don't mistake a simple Windows or Linux server with a pre-installed Internet Information Server (IIS) or some other software for an intranet infrastructure. When hosting an intranet, you need to address issues such as (but certainly not limited to):
- The security mechanisms, such as firewall and proxy servers, that need to be in place to protect the network from external threats.
- Internal security mechanisms and policies, user authentication, and access control lists (ACL) to define multi-level, granular user access to view and update intranet resources.
- System availability, backups, data and server redundancy, hardware architecture, and disaster recovery (DR) procedures. All of these have an impact on the bottom dollar and your IT staff.
- The number of systems required: Web front end, search server, SQL backend, staging, load balancing, development servers, scalability, and DR.
Benefits of External Hosting
Many factors will impact your decision on whether to host internally or externally. For instance, hosting externally would be a good option in the following cases:
- Companies which currently don’t have their own intranet infrastructure set up and simply need to find a quick home for their system where all of the security and network infrastructures are already in place.
- Smaller operations which lack a dedicated IT staff, licensing, additional backup space, internal bandwidth, or time.
- A company which has power issues in their facility and wants a guaranteed uptime for a geographical office disbursement.
- Companies which want to focus on software and content. External intranet hosting allows developers and content owners to focus solely on the development and design of the intranet and its content, not infrastructure issues.
- Companies which want to make a smaller initial investment. External intranet hosting is the best option for those who don't have enough money up-front to invest in new hardware and software to host their intranet in-house.
While there are many advantages to external intranet hosting, there are other additional concerns which need to be considered:
- Security concerns: Secure content, and perhaps sensitive information regarding the internal operations of your company, will be exposed to the hosting providers. When intranets are housed internally, content will only be exposed to, and handled by, employees of the company. But regardless of who has access to the information internally, content circulates within, and never leaves, that protective bubble we call the corporate LAN. However, any professional hosting provider is used to dealing with corporate clients and will have the necessary security mechanisms in place—firewall, data encryption, user authentication—and have run through all the security benchmarks to ensure that content is safe.
- Homework: With all of the choices available, it may take a considerable amount of time shopping around and interviewing to find a host suitable for your intranet and support needs at the price you're willing to pay.
- Technology support: Your hosting provider may not support some, or all, of your chosen technologies and or platforms.
- Technical and user support: You're at the mercy of a third-party technical support staff, and the turnaround time for problem resolution may not be up to par with your expectations and/or needs.
- Costs: You’ll need to be aware of the costs for initial set-up, technical support, and any additional costs that may be associated with exceeding upload/download quotas.
These are all valid and very important considerations, and anyone considering external hosting for their intranet will need to make sure they’ve covered all the bases before making a decision.
Other aspects to consider
Determining the hosting needs of an intranet should be the first technology consideration when discussing an intranet project. An externally hosted intranet might make sense for a smaller company without a dedicated IT staff, or for an intranet that is primarily a communications tool (publishing an internal newsletter, or posting corporate information, for example). If the intranet is limited to publishing and posting of information rather than as a working tool for daily tasks (like managing time entry) hosting the intranet outside of the company's network is probably the best choice. An externally hosted intranet will be easier, less complicated, and less expensive to build.
Another technology issue to consider is the use of third party software. Certain intranet tasks, such as time keeping, real-time HR forms, and accounting processes, are usually best left to third party software. There are many choices of software for these tasks, and most offer web-based interfaces. For example, if a company uses a particular software package for entering time sheet information that integrates with back-end accounting systems, recreating an intranet time keeper would be a waste of time and money. It would be better for the intranet to simply link to the time keeping software itself. These third party solutions will often allow for the use of custom interfaces, so that a consistent look and feel can be maintained across the intranet. But even if this is not an option, it is still better to leave specialized tasks to the software that has been specifically designed to handle them, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel.
Software integration is a technically challenging task, but it is often a necessary part of intranet development. If software integration is either needed or expected (and there is a huge difference between the two), the project is likely going to involve some additional time, and a third party software development consultant will need to be brought into the project.
Software integration, or getting data from one piece of software to interact with information in another piece of software, can be hard to do. It can be challenging to uncover the expectations for software integration when planning and designing an intranet with non-technical clients. People sometimes have unrealistic expectations about software integration, so clarifying expectations about software integration is important in the early stages of planning an intranet.
As with any project, Intranets are truly company-wide endeavors. Getting an entire company to "buy in” to the intranet is critical to its success. For example, finance and technology departments tend to have their share of disagreements with each other. Because an intranet project will involve both groups (as well as others, including HR, secretarial support staff, reception, customer support, etc.), the relational tensions need to be handled delicately. This is because an intranet is usually hosted and maintained inside a company's Local Area Network (LAN), which falls within the highly protected domain of IT. Because intranets often need to integrate with other internal third party software (i.e. HR software, time entry and analysis software, etc.), IT departments will usually want to host the intranet inside the corporate network, depending on the third party software used. Fostering communication and appreciation between departments during the development process is an important political dynamic to keep an eye on.
Utilize our expertise
An intranet can be an exciting project to work on. When done correctly, intranets can improve morale and communication, increase efficiency, build a greater sense of corporate culture and community, and provide an effective means for distribution of company information.
No single solution will work for every organization or business. Choosing between internal hosting and external hosting for an intranet means thinking about the needs, resources, and desires of the particular company.
At WSOL, we have experience developing intranets for a variety of clients, as well as providing external intranet hosting. With our combination of hosting and development services, we can help our clients determine the best options for intranet hosting, and we’re always available to answer any other questions or concerns. Do you need help determining the best solution for your company’s intranet? Please contact us to speak to an expert, or feel free to share any questions you might have in the comments below.