Within the next few years, companies will give key suppliers access to their internal data via extranets, so that they can continually restock key components. Of course, some companies have been doing just that for years, using electronic data interchange (E.D.I.) software or, more recently, the Notes program from the Lotus Development unit of I.B.M.
But both those solutions required that all of a company's business partners adopt and support a common piece of software, one that was often costly and difficult to learn.The advantage to extranets is again reduced cost and complexity, because browsers are cheap, inherently easy to use and universal. Because they all adhere to Internet standards, it makes no difference if a company is running Netscape software on its server while its key vendors run Microsoft browsers. That was not the case with proprietary E.D.I. programs or Lotus Notes, although it should be mentioned that Lotus is rapidly reconfiguring Notes to be Web-based and many E.D.I. companies are taking similar steps.
"The same people who thought Notes was great are finding that extranets give them the ability to have better customer and partner contacts,'' said Michael Hebert, a group product manager for the Microsoft Corporation. For companies nervous about trusting internal data to the Internet, private leased lines are a more secure, if costly, alternative, he said. "Virtual private networks are a technology that make it easier for people to roll these things out,'' he added.
As on an intranet, extranets let content creators maintain control of their data. A company need not let its business partners have unfettered access to the corporate data base, but can choose to publish only that portion of the data they need to see.
"It all really comes down to security and access, making sure that only the right people have access to only the right data,'' said Sheldon Laube, chief technology officer of the U.S. Web Corporation, which develops Web sites, intranets and extranets for customers on an outsourcing basis. "Even inside your company you don't give everybody access to payroll or other sensitive data.''
Ultimately, the lines of distinction between intranets, extranets and the Internet will blur, Mr. Laube said. Already, he noted, some companies offer internal data to business partners using unlisted sites on the World Wide Web. Is that an extranet, an intranet or the Internet in action?
"People who focus on the names rather than the function will get confused,'' he said. "Within a year or two, there will be no difference between intranets, extranets and the Internet. It will all come together.''
Reprint No. 97109
Illustrations by Ward Schumaker
Lawrence M. Fisher, email@example.com, covered technology for the New York Times for 15 years and has written for dozens of other publications. Mr. Fisher, who is based in San Francisco, is a recipient of the Hearst Award for investigative journalism.