Intranets are designed to be secure from the outside world, but rarely offer any differentiating security once inside since they are designed for sharing information. An extranet though, is designed explicitly for sharing information with others outside the organization. These could be clients, business partners, shareholders, key vendors, or any other entity where secure communication is required. Because the audience may widely vary, the ability to securely manage the content on a granular and role-based level is critical. For example, an executive may want to manage content that a business partner can view, but the business partner should not have rights to make changes to that content.

As software continues to become more sophisticated, the lines between these two begin to blur.  Software packages that began as intranet solutions now provide limited extranet functionality; some major Document Management Systems fall into this category, as does Microsoft SharePoint*. However, there are some major considerations that need to be looked at before using an intranet tool to provide access to outside users:

  • First, and perhaps the most important, is that as an intranet solution, these software packages reside within your local network. In order to share information with outside users, access to the local network must be granted.
  • Second, the management for intranet solutions assumes security is based on the network. This means that even if external access is possible, it either means adding external users to your local network — with all the security concerns that implies — or bolting on some form of external user management tool along with the extra management and configuration that it requires.
  • Third, the management and configuration of an intranet solution often depends on server administration rights and tools. For example, to create portals in SharePoint*, a network administrator must login to the server and create the portal, configure and customize it for the specific users, then assign it to the user to manage the content.

Extranet systems on the other hand, are designed from the ground up for external access:

  • User management and configuration is integrated and not dependent on any external system.
  • Configuration and management is designed to be performed from within the software, eliminating the dependency on network administrators and complex network authentication requirements.
  • Finally, the extranet solution can be hosted completely outside the company network, eliminating many of the security concerns raised with a locally hosted application.

Picking a solution

Intranet and extranet solutions both provide invaluable services that can be used by virtually any organization — particularly as security and access control concerns have increased in the last few years. However, it is also important to understand the distinctions between these two solutions, and the strengths and weaknesses each provides. For local access with tight integration with network security, an intranet is the best option. For securely sharing and controlling access to data with outside users (whether business partners, vendors, or clients), a dedicated extranet solution is a better choice than opening your network to outside access.

*Microsoft and SharePoint are Registered Trademarks of Microsoft Corporation