Maybe you’ve just heard the terms “intranet” and “extranet” and want to know more, or you’re an IT tech who’s asked about extranets and intranets on a daily basis and would like a learning resource to point inquisitive people to.
In either case, we’re here to help explain the difference between intranet and extranet, explain what they’re used for, and even offer some strategies for safely setting up and maintaining your own external networks.
The Internet of It All
We all know what the internet is — it’s on our computers, phones, refrigerators, and even in some of our medical devices. You’re on the internet right now. The internet is a global web of interconnected servers, personal computers, and devices that is (relatively) accessible to anyone.
However, many people don’t run into intranets or extranets in their daily lives. Or, if they do, they may not realize they’re using them. And while they may be similar, intranets and extranets have different uses.
What Is an Intranet?
At first blush, an intranet is fundamentally similar to the internet: it’s a connected network of computers. You share data, messages, and files across multiple platforms.
Where it differs is in its security, exclusivity, and locality: intranets are accessible only to a select group of people inside a business or organization. The primary purpose of an intranet is for employees and coworkers to communicate easily and safely. Files on the intranet can be accessed and altered by all relevant personnel in the company. This creates a solid platform for collaboration for all employees while keeping those documents off the larger internet.
Now, most cloud services these days fulfill many of those collaborative functions. But, the safety of your data stored in a third-party server (like the cloud server) is always going to come with security risks.
Examples of effective intranets
Intranets primarily connect coworkers with each other to share resources.
HR intranets keep all employee documentation on one closed network. Hiring and firing paperwork, insurance forms, PTO forms, and all other confidential information can be stored safely but also accessed easily. HR and employees might both have access to this intranet — for example, employees could be empowered to download, fill out, and turn in their own PTO and insurance forms without bugging HR.
School intranets can connect students and teachers, or teachers with each other. Students can check up on assignment dates and instructions, school events, and grades. Teachers can access the school and district calendars; share teaching resources with each other; turn in reports or attendance sheets; and create per-class notebooks and folders, where students can turn in essays, papers, and other home and classwork.
Students can also use these extranets to collaborate on projects, which is doubly important for remote students taking online courses.
Corporate intranets, of course, let coworkers share and store files. Work files, images, calendars, videos, spreadsheets, client details, order forms, and budgets are kept on private intranets with share permissions based on authority and job function. These are also great for corporate knowledge-bases that can be read by new employees and expanded on by senior employees, which would include taining material, best practices, dress codes, process walkthroughs, etc.
How to Set Up an Intranet
Traditionally, creating your own intranet meant buying and setting up a server (or servers, depending on your load) and maintaining them yourself — usually on-site. Then, you either used server software (or made your own) to run the handling of all file and traffic requests to the intranet.
Popular server applications include Microsoft IIS, Apache Tomcat, and Oracle WebLogic. It’s also possible to code your own web server software, though that’s less common now and, obviously, much more time-consuming.
In this traditional method, the server hardware and software are then protected by firewall hardware and software, which gate the intranet off from the rest of the greater internet. And, in the final bit of protection, the computer must be connected to the organization’s LAN in order to access the intranet (barring special permissions added to the firewall).
This method is still in use, though many companies are moving their intranets onto the cloud — where, instead of a local server, an outside company hosts all of the data. Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft’s OneDrive have become popular for sharing data in an organization, while messenger services like Skype for Business and Slack have taken over much of the intraorganizational communication duties.
What is an Extranet?
An extranet is a hybrid of internet and intranet — it combines the closed nature of an intranet with the outside connections of the internet. Essentially, an extranet connects customers and a business on a separate, private network.
It uses the same protocols and connectivity as the normal internet but is only accessible by customers/clients and a business. Think of it as an intranet that select outside users can access — partners, vendors, clients, customers, etc. If a web page is a public park, an extranet would be a private country club.
A health care portal would be an example of an extranet. It communicates extremely private information between doctors, patients, and health care provides. Patients can make appointments, access health records, and communicate with their doctors through text messages or video conferencing — basically, all the hallmarks of an effective and secure extranet.
Almost all schools, especially colleges, have extranets these days. Teachers can post their syllabi and assignments, which students can access through a private portal. Students can pay their tuition and parking fees, sign up for classes, get their transcripts, and make appointments with counselors from their computers or mobile phones.
Retail companies often use extranets that their partners and suppliers can connect to. These extranets are usually used for ordering inventory, tracking shipping, monitoring logistics, and making other kinds of B2B purchases. Both the hosting company and the partners can call up receipts, manifests, prices, and other data without having to ask the other party. Franchises often use extranets for similar purposes, with the added benefit of consolidating all training and standard franchise procedures in one place for all franchise locations.
Lastly, extranets are great for remote teams trying to communicate and collaborate on projects.
Setting Up an Extranet
Extranets aren’t altogether different from intranets, so setting them up is very similar.
You can host it on a local server, same as an intranet, but the firewall will have to be configured to allow approved users to log in. This can be done either through an approved IP range (good if you have only a few static users or are part of a remote team) or through authorized accounts.
Just like intranets, there are extranet software solutions — for servers or the cloud — that make them easier to set up. Blink makes extranet software for employee portals, a common extranet function. Kahootz and Workzone also allow you to set up and customize your own extranets.
Airtable, Quip, Dropbox, and Google Drive (among others) work well as collaboration platforms for sharing files and spreadsheets on the cloud with outsiders and partners.
You can even create an extranet through WordPress.
Intranets vs. Extranets
In the end, intranets and extranets are the same concept — a private network that only a select few can use. They’re generally for work or business, to some extent, and allow users to communicate, collaborate, and share files and information.
Whether you need an intranet or an extranet is going to depend on who will access it — a single group of people in an organization, or multiple organizations or parties.