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Are 'intranet' and 'extranet' outdated words? Are there better terms?

I help manage content for our company's intranet, which I've also sometimes called an employee portal. Some colleagues have been pointing out that those are both old-school terms and could be misleading. Is my terminology incorrect? And is there a better way of referring to intranets, extranets and the Internet?

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I think you're confusing a couple of issues. The terms "Internet," "intranet" and "extranet" refer to the boundaries of network connectivity and not the business uses and benefits of those technologies.

Intranets limit access to servers and information sources running inside a company to its employees only. The Internet, of course, provides access to all comers -- we used to characterize it as the information superhighway. Extranets, on the other hand, offer private routes across the Internet for friendly parties, such as business partners -- it's kind of a combination between a toll road and a gated community where only those in the know have access. These definitions were never precise. They served their purpose to fuel the excitement around the arrival of the digital age. But today's cloud computing makes intranet and extranet a bit dated.

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Fortunately, we've moved on. My favorite triad now includes employee-, partner- and customer-facing websites. Not surprisingly, a good intranet or employee portal can be repositioned as an employee-facing website. An extranet can be recast as a site for partners or customers, and corporate websites also qualify as customer-facing.

Here's the difference: It's important to identify the purpose of a website and not the network topology on which it is based. When you manage a website, you need to identify the audience and what you expect people are going to do when they access the information you provide. Are they customers, business partners or employees? Are they teachers or students? Perhaps you are targeting multiple audiences. But if you do not have at least one in mind, you have a bigger problem that you need to fix.

Once you've identified the audience (or audiences), you then need to figure out how to manage and structure the content. You'll need to address the following issues: Who is going to access what kinds of information? Who has privileges to create and modify content? How is the information organized and tagged? Most importantly, you should focus your design and development efforts on the expected business results and not the underlying network connections.

This was first published in November 2012

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