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You've mastered the Internet? Now try the Intranet

It's a Web site for free communications within your school. Les Watson explains.

At last the world of computers is beginning to realise that information is the most important part of information technology. The Internet is primarily about the communication of facts, either through the use of electronic mail or by access to machines with the sole purpose of storing and distributing data.

The worldwide distribution of information does not respect previous technological barriers. It generally does not matter whether you are using an Apple Macintosh or an IBM-compatible PC to gain access - it still looks the same, proving that the technology is subservient to the information. And if the technology is irrelevant on the Internet, why should it matter in school?

The answer is that it doesn't matter. The protocols behind the Internet can be applied within an organisation to develop an "intranet", an internal, private version of the Net. And many commercial organisations are already using them.

The Internet uses Internet Protocol (IP), which can be understood by most computers. So connecting machines to an IP network fulfills the dream of most school network managers - cross-platform access to information. The latest networking software from Microsoft - NT server - makes the use of IP on school networks very straightforward. In addition to its universal connectivity, the Internet uses documents based on HTML (Hypertext Mark Up Language), which provides a method of linking documents, whether composed of text or graphics, to other documents anywhere else on the Internet or Intranet. HTML is a useful way for schools to link documents and to structure both curricular and management information.

Using the same technology as the Internet, Intranets are private information networks that allow a school to create an internal Web site for publishing information to users on the school network. As the information accessed via an Intranet is held on the school server, it does not require a connection to the Internet, and so does not attract any on-line service or communication charges.

Research Machines gives advice on developing school intranets, and also on the tools that are available to simplify the process of authoring information and maintaining documents on an Intranet. RM envisages schools using intranets to publish internal newsletters, reports, syllabuses and timetables, and as a means of providing access to teaching and training materials. Intranets are also an ideal way of sharing documents among pupils doing project work or staff working together.

The school intranet also supplements Internet access by allowing the school to download pages of interest, copyright permitting, for later off-line browsing via the school intranet. As you only need to download once, this saves access time, reduces communication costs, and gives users direct access to the information directly on the school intranet.

RM points out that this also ensures users can only access information approved by the school. The only requirement is that the school server has sufficient hard-disc space to store the information and that copyright rules are observed. If the school Internet Service Provider (ISP) offers free Web space, suitable sections of the Intranet can be up-loaded to the ISP site for access by parents, pupils, other schools and professional bodies. Research Machines can configure Intranet and electronic mail services for use on RM Connect networks. Both RM Connect and NT are good platforms for Intranets as they use Microsoft's IIS (Internet Information Server).

ICL has created specific systems for school intranet provision. The company, which recently teamed up with Sun, probably the leader in Internet technologies, to become a Sun Netra reseller, believes that the Sun technology is currently the best solution for both Internet and Intranet applications and will be developing the Sun product for education by adding increased security and privacy.

The ICL product will include easy-to-use facilities for setting up e-mail and the development of home pages. ICL is providing a cost-effective Internet connection for schools through the UUnet Pipex service and sees this as a way of extending the school intranet to the local community. ICL will also offer a community connection pack, which allows schools to extend the Netra connection to the home using a bank of dial-in modems.

As an information provider, the school may be able to earn income with such a system. For more cautious schools not wishing to invest in a fully owned information system of this type, ICL provides a proxy server which routes calls to the school net, avoiding the need for a bank of modems.

The ICL Intranet will provide a way of disseminating school curriculum resources, and although the current solution is PC-based it is likely to include other systems in the future. Most schools are investing in multimedia PCs, machines that are relatively "fat" for use as information devices on intranets. The future is one of "fat" servers and "thin" clients. So don't throw away your relatively low specification machines. Just provide them with Ethernet networking capability and the chances are that they will make useful intranet clients.


RM stand 136

ICL stand 250

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