Dr Jon Knight
Library Systems Developer
If you open a computer magazine today, the chances are you will be confronted by articles and advertisements discussing how to set up a corporate intranet. The term intranet seems to have sprung up as if by magic in the last year or so and now many products are "intranet ready" or "intranet enabled". But what exactly is an intranet and should libraries be making use of them?
If one is being cynical (and being cynical when it comes to advertising is always a good idea!), the intranet concept is merely marketing hype. The intranet is more or less the repackaging of technologies developed for the global Internet for use within an organisation. The idea is that the tools that are allowing people to effectively communicate across the planet and between different organisations can also be applied to improving communication and information dissemination within a single organisation. In other words, intranet development takes existing, outward looking Internet technology designed to provide inter-organisational communications and turns it in on itself to service the internal communication needs of a single organisation.
The companies that are developing tools for use on the Internet see the corporate intranet concept as a way to increase the returns on their development investments. It is increasingly important for them to do this as many organisations have far greater needs to spread information internally than they do to communicate with the outside world. Where a company might only require three or four web servers for providing information to the public over the Internet, it might be possible for a web server vendor to sell its products to every division or even departmental group with that company in order to spread information internally. This allows vendors of Internet technology to begin competing with the vendors of special purpose groupware technology (such as Lotus with its Notes product).
One big win for corporate network managers in using intranet technology over groupware technology is that it means that end users will only need one set of tools to access all networked information, whether it be from outside the organisation via the Internet or from internal systems via the local intranet. If you're looking after a thousand desktops, only having to license, install and maintain a single web browser rather than a web browser and a set of groupware tools can be a big win. Similarly only having to deal with web server technology rather than web servers and groupware servers makes life easier at the source as well.
So, is the intranet just hyperbole aimed at the large corporate network managers that can be ignored by library systems staff? The answer depends on your organisation; its size, structure and geographical disposition will effect how useful an intranet is to you. In a small library employing only a few people in a single building, intranet technology is likely to make less of an impact than in a large public library system with hundreds of staff distributed over a relatively large number of sites and running a large number of IT based services. The reason for this is that in a large, spread out organisation, an intranet allows people who might never meet to communicate with each other and provides access to data that might not otherwise be easily available to them.
In the rest of this article, we'll briefly look at some intranet options that may be of use in a library environment. We'll also look at how you can setup an intranet on the cheap using low cost or free hardware and software. It should also become clear that in many academic libraries, the intranet is already here except that we did know that was what it was called when we were developing it!
Accessing Management Information
The library typically provides access to a large number of resources. These resources include books, journals, CD-ROM databases, online services and even the library OPAC itself. It is often useful to be able to track how popular and heavily used these resources are, in order to make funding and resource allocation decisions. Usage information is an example of management information. Other examples of management information are reports and reviews written by members of staff. Management information is something that can be relatively easily delivered to librarians desktops using off the shelf products and/or a few home grown programs.
For example, consider the case of access to CD-ROMs. At Loughborough University, we provide access to a fair number of CD-ROMs over the campus network. In order to use one of these CD-ROMs, users must supply a user name and password which is validated against the users on the Computing Services central computing resources. The reason for this was mainly to ensure that we were abiding by the licensing agreements of many CD-ROMs that stipulate that only users from within your own organisation can use them; by validating against the central user list we could provide these CD-ROMs all over campus, even in the public laboratories.
As a side effect of this validation, a log file is built up each day listing the users and the CD-ROMs that they accessed. For some time this information was just left to accumulate and occasionally the librarians would request that one of the systems staff process the collected logs to provide them with some usage information on the CD-ROMs. However this was an awkward situation as it meant that the librarians had to request the reports some time in advance and it was yet another time consuming task for the systems staff to perform. It was decided to investigate how easy it would be to provide access to these logs to the librarians via the web. At the time a web server had been loaded onto the library OPAC machine in order to prototype the WebOPAC. If the web could make the OPAC more friendly and feature rich for the end users, it seemed natural that it could also provide an friendly and easy to use interface to the CD-ROM logs.
The solution developed was a relatively simple Common Gateway Interface (CGI) script written in Perl. Every day, the log file is transfered from the Computing Services central hosts to the library OPAC machine. The CGI script makes use of the logfiles, in conjunction with a couple of configuration files to map between department and CD-ROM codes and names, to allow the librarians to perform simple usage queries. They can specify which CD-ROM they are interested in (or all of them), which department (or all departments) and a period of time. The CGI script takes this input from an HTML form and then uses it to extract the required usage information from the logfiles.
The script only took a morning to develop and is easy to maintain. It has proved popular with the librarians who can now find out how well used particular CD-ROMs are from their web browser. It is a good example of how existing data can be repackaged and made more readily available using normal Internet technologies. The script, though running on the main library web server, is only accessible to a select group of librarians and so is really an intranet application.
Improving Internal Communications
As well as providing a means of allowing access to existing data sources for management purposes, the intranet is also supposed to help foster group working. It can do this in a number of ways. Firstly, in most academic institutions at least, email has already become a replacement or alternative to internal memoranda. The ability to easily set up and maintain Internet mailing lists can be applied in the intranet context to support group communication. Mailing lists can be archived and the archive made available from the intranet's web server to allow a group memory to be developed. This permits the experience of a group to outlast the original participants in the group; as older group members are replaced by new ones, the newcomers can "get up to speed" on what the group has achieved by reviewing the archive.
Mailing list archives are also more accurate than traditional meeting minutes and means that groups no longer need to dedicate someone to make notes of their decisions. The groups themselves are also no longer constrained to actually physically meeting if they do not want to; indeed some people (the author included) find mailing lists much more amenable to supporting the group discussion and decision making processes than face-to-face meetings. The removal of geographic barriers permits to establishment and effective operation of groups that would otherwise be too costly or infrequently communicating to be viable.
As well as mailing lists and their archives, it is possible to host bulletin board services. These support group work and can also be used to share ideas and foster interaction amongst a broader group within an organisation. A number of Internet tools exist that could be reused in the intranet context but probably the most useful is the USENET news system. Many institutions already have USENET systems running and its little trouble to create new newsgroups for internal distribution only to support group work. Some of the newer USENET software even supports secure, closed newsgroups with limited membership, making them a viable alternative to mailing lists in some situations.
An Intranet on the Cheap
If the concept of an intranet sounds attractive to your library, the next task is to decide how to implement it. The Internet technology vendors are falling over themselves to offer their solutions for the intranet but most of these have a fairly heft price tag, sometimes even for educational sites. However it is possible to at least test the water using cheap hardware and free or low cost software.
Because the intranet just reuses Internet technology in a more limited environment it is possible to make use of the plethora of free web servers, scripting languages, USENET news servers and mailing list software that are already widely deployed in the Internet. Indeed it is likely that you have already got some the software installed at your site if you provide Internet access to your staff or patrons. Teaming this free software up with a free or low cost operating systems and a cheap PC and hey presto; you've got an intranet server!
Now those of you that have read my previous Ariadne articles know what is coming next; my recommendation for the basis of an intranet server is Linux. Linux is a UNIX operating system clone that runs on PC and workstations and can be downloaded for free over the Internet (or, if you want commercial support, a number of suppliers will sell you a package with a CD-ROM, printed manuals and a variety of telephone or email support deals). Even on a lowly 486 based PC, Linux can support a web server, a few CGI scripts written in Perl that mine management information out of logfiles and existing databases and a small set of mailing lists. Put it on a Pentium class PC or a small workstation and you've got something that will quite happily support the intranet needs of a reasonably sized library.
These days Linux usually installs on common hardware with little or no fuss (especially if you're doing it from a vendor's CD-ROM) and it can be up and running in a couple of hours. Factor in a day or so to become familiar with the system if you've never done UNIX before and another half day to set up all the services and you're away. Things such as mailing lists, web servers and archives are set up by editing a few text based configuration files according to the supplied instructions. Providing management information from existing database is a bit more involved and will usually require a bit of programming (but then what doesn't in a library systems unit?)
The nice thing about doing the intranet on the cheap in this way is that it lets you test the water without breaking the bank. It also lets you scale up easily; you could start with an old 386DX40 (yep, Linux is lean and mean enough to run well on old hardware like that) to get the feel for things and to prototype a few scripts and mailing lists and then move up to a more powerful machine if the intranet services prove popular. This is obviously much better than falling for the marketing hype and buying the latest and greatest commercial OS and intranet tools, plus the hefty machine to run them on, only to find that it didn't work out too well for your site.
Of course there are downsides to the cheapie Linux approach. Firstly you have to pick an chose the tools that you'll need to do the job. There are some suggestions at the end of this article but new packages are appearing daily. The big plus point for the commercial intranet packages is that they try to provide a single vendor source for all the tools that you'll need, and therefore also a single point of contact when something goes wrong. The commercial packages usually try to provide a unified, friendly front end to the software, whereas Linux tends towards the traditional UNIX text based configuration. And lastly there can sometimes be resistance within an organisation to the concept of "free" software such as Linux and its associated tools, even if they are of a higher quality than some of the commercial products that are available.
This article has hopefully outlined some of what is meant by the term "intranet" and provided a suggestion as to how you can try it out for yourself at bargain basement prices. As was said at the beginning, the chances are that if you're providing Internet services for staff or patrons, you've already got at least some of the technology in place. Whether the intranet is something that you need to consider depends very much upon your organisation but it is likely that you can reuse existing Internet technology such as the web to provide at least some internal services.
Here's some useful sources of information on intranet technology and tools that maybe of some interest:
- Apache Web server (a version of which is included in many Linux distributions),
- INN USENET news server,
- The Complete Intranet Resource - an intranet reference site
- Linux on the Web (UK academic mirror),
- Majordomo mailing list software,
- Comprehensive Perl Archive Network UK academic mirror (Perl is a popular scripting language for writing CGI scripts)