If businesses are to succeed in the current age of global enterprises, they must utilize every tool, IT component, and strategic IT system that exists - aligned with their company model, enterprise blueprint, and strategic plan. There have been a series of advanced technologies that have evolved to give companies of all sizes an edge in their ability to streamline their operations, increase the efficiency of their workflows, and better their bottom line.
While there are several business IT components associated with virtually every enterprise, one significant and critical element associated with a robust IT infrastructure is the network systems and web systems of a company, which can include many sub-IT systems. IT systems execs should grasp how each and every advanced modern technology associated with network and web systems can be leveraged to make life easier for their company with regards to their Business-to-Customer (B2C) dealings and their Business-to-Business (B2B) interactions. When it comes to B2B and B2C interactions, this online, globalized world of interconnectivity often means that business associates, outsourced contractors, vendors, business partners, clients, customers, and even shareholders may need access to a company’s internal network and all of their pertinent critical documents, whitepapers, project data, spreadsheets, financial reconciliations, policy sheets, contracts, invoices, FAQs, and more.
Modern advanced Network and Web systems technology include Cloud technology, Cloud Analytics, Cloud Artificial Intelligence systems, Cloud Database as a Service system (DBaaS), the Internet of Things, Blockchain networks, Web Portals, and more. Regarding web portals, they are an online gateway that acts as portals to a company’s sensitive and critical data, while allowing clients, customers, vendors, and business associates to access these virtual and private network services and information via a website login (web browser) authentication system. Such a system allows such external members to have secure, managed, remote access to a company’s internal network of critical data and services, giving the company’s clients, partners, and associates a strategic advantage in doing business with them. At the same time, the company can manage who has access to what data, ensuring that the business partners and associates have secure access only to the parts of the company network that is needed for the partners to complete their tasks, and for clients to access the relevant data pertaining to them.
Understanding why such a set of web/network systems is key to a company’s success requires a look into the four significant parts of a company's internal and external network infrastructure:
- Web Portal [Client Portal]: A client portal is a type of generic web portal, that is, an online, website-based gateway that allows customers/clients and vendors/associates to access a certain set of internally-managed resources, data, and services that are hosted by a company.
- Internet: The public Internet acts as an IP-based global WAN that allows companies to email external vendors, suppliers, manufacturers, partners, and customers, and to access the World Wide Web and all of its decentralized server-based resources.
- Company Intranet: A company's intranet acts as an internal network that can be used for personnel to share, collaborate on, and access critical data, electronic resources, spreadsheets, plans, graphs, and statistics, that can be key for the completion of different tasks. This network is shielded from the outside and is often connected to a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) via a web firewall so that external parties can access certain parts of the company's internal resources (via a web portal) without being able to access the entire company intranet. While intranets are great for internal company collaborations and communications (along with data sharing inside a company), they are not suitable for communicating and collaborating with external, third parties.
- Business Extranet: Originally, extranets were an extension of a company’s intranet, and implied a virtual network hosted by a company that, in one way or another, securely linked said external network with the company’s internal network and its resources/services. Extranets today are separate networks from a company’s intranet and have specific applications, services, and resources that are made available to third parties that can be accessed via a web portal (usually). Extranet functionalities also allow specific datasets and services of the company’s internal network to be shared with third parties for the purpose of collaboration. The sharing of such data allows essential and vital business services to be available to third parties while being separate from the company's intranet for security purposes.
Extranets are used to carry out three principal purposes for an enterprise’s clients and business partners:
- Sharing data
- Collaborating on projects
- Communicating with pertinent parties
You can see why extranets have become a key player in today’s corporate landscape, which often includes third parties, contractors, outsourced specialists, and remote workers.
Definition Of An Extranet
Extranets usually operate via web/client portals and are external, robust, collaborative, virtual network systems that offer access to certain resources and data within a company’s internal network (intranet) to relevant third parties.
An enterprise’s external network system helps to increase company efficiency (by coupling together relevant third parties with the data and services they need to carry out tasks quickly), streamlines operations, quickens project completion times (by optimizing communications and access to crucial intranet data), increases company productivity, and overall increases the bottom line. Such network systems, when implemented correctly, allow for greater security of company networks, greater flexibility with data sharing and collaboration, and optimized management of projects and operations, among other things.
There are several situations in which an extranet would allow third parties to log in to a company’s extranet via a website login page, resulting in the third party having secure and managed access to crucial documents, applications, services, and data that may be needed for the completion of a project. Additionally, since extranet platforms are developed with specific applications and platform-based systems that are meant to link remote third parties with the company’s internal workings, robust communication mechanisms can be built into an extranet to ensure that project spreadsheets, documents, strategic plans, etc., can be edited, updated, managed, copied, secured, signed, and collaborated on by third parties and the associated enterprise with ease. Such a system also negates the need for companies to use much less efficient email systems when it comes to attaching files and collaborating on critical documents.
Difference From Intranet
An Intranet is a company’s internal networks that are shielded from the public internet and external users. Such an intranet contains server-side services, applications, data, and documents that are only accessible from inside a company.
Extranets, on the other hand, are virtual and secure networks that exist outside of a company’s intranet - while often linking to portions of said intranet - that give external third parties the ability to login and access said area of the network so that they can utilize the pertinent services and data remotely without accessing the entire intranet. An extranet is thus a web portal-based network-area that acts as a highly controlled gateway to portions of a company’s critical data and/or services.
Delving further, intranets typically operate as company LAN, while extranets often utilize a DMZ security system (with a web firewall) as a buffer between web servers and the company intranet. While intranets contain all of a company’s resources and services, extranets are the gateway to only portions of the company’s resources and services for third parties to access via a web/client portal.
Types Of Extranets
There are several types of extranets that can be leveraged by businesses of all sizes to allow relevant third parties to access the critical data and services of an enterprise, all with collaboration and management in mind. Note that a single extranet may encompass all three types of categorical extranets at once.
Project Extranets are external networks specifically designed to revolve around corporate projects and large-scale operations. Such extranets are vital for managing all of the operational “moving parts” of a project while keeping the many different parties involved together under one collaborative umbrella. The core parts of project extranets are:
- Project Management tools
- Cloud data synchronization
- Project catalogs
An example of why a company may need a project extranet is with a large-scale manufacturing and construction firm that is undertaking a large municipal building project that requires massive collaborations with city authorities, shareholders, financial backers, strategic planners, construction workers, and more.
Logistic extranets help companies manage the minute logistical operations and aspects of projects, workflows, operations, short-term tactical plan implementations, and long-term strategies. They have the basic features of any extranet - web portal access, authentication mechanisms, links with the company’s intranet data and network - while having specific features that allow it to benefit large scale e-commerce operations that require real-time updates and connections with distributors, manufacturers, and vendors:
- Manufacturing spreadsheets
- Distribution financial reconciliations
- Vendor catalogs
For example, a large construction project may require a massive logistics collaborative platform that allows all of the logistics of a municipal project to be robustly and feasibly managed.
Integration extranets are a generic type of extranet that allows companies to integrate internal enterprise suites and robust enterprise-level applications into a single extranet platform for collaboration between multiple relevant parties where data needs to be updated instantaneously. Such a system would benefit projects that need to connect many third parties with certain features and benefits:
- Shareholder agreement sharing and collaboration
- EDI (Electronic Data Interchange)
- Communication-based collaboration platform functions (reminiscent of Slack)
There are several cases where a robust integration extranet would be highly valuable to a company, such as during a Merger & Acquisition project that needs to integrate many systems and third parties under a single umbrella.
Extranet Use Cases
Extranets are critical network applications that are usable in many different day-to-day situations and over the long-term, benefitting both short-term tactical plans and long-term business strategies.
Extranets are simply logical networks partitioned in such a way that a company’s critical data and services (that are typically associated with its intranet) can be accessed remotely via a website-based login mechanism. Like with any network, enterprise-level applications can be built on top of the extranet to provide third parties with specific powerful applications and services, from CRM applications to analytics suites to ERP functionalities.
Extranets are one type of client portal solution that gives companies the ability to share what would usually be internal, intranet-based files, documents, budgets, invoices, payment data, and application services with clients via a web-based login mechanism. Such portals also allow for instant communication, collaboration on documents, uploading or downloading of data, sharing of data, editing and management of data, and even the providing of project deliverables.
Suppliers And Contractors
When dealing with the manufacturing sector, leveraging an extranet gives a company the ability to share ERP functions with suppliers and contractors, which means managing supplies, collaborating with vendors, making deals with contractors, maintaining warehouse information, and more, along with simply managing contractor details via one central hub-system.
Board portals give external organizations, third parties, shareholders, stakeholders, past clients, brand ambassadors, and outsourced contractors the ability to securely access boards, communities, and even blogs in order to learn more, schedule meetings, share information, and share, edit and manage documents instantly, all via a secure extranet.
Merger And Acquisitions
M&A processes are massive operations and projects that typically require a large amount of data sharing and collaboration between different parties and business partners. Extranets can allow all relevant parties (including multiple companies) involved in an M&A project to share information, collaborate on M&A contracts, manage the joint-development efforts, and stay up-to-date on all M&A processes.
Extranets are great for providing teaching and training blogs and materials to remote workers and third parties who may need to learn and develop before fully coming into a company to fulfill a particular role. Extranets can also be joint-developed with other enterprises to mutually train and teach employees and new recruits, or even to host joint-training programs with other companies so that their personnel can learn, co-train, engage in conferences and seminars or offer specific skill-based teaching and training.
Create A Secure Communication Solution
Extranets give businesses a secure way to allow relevant parties - remote workers, third party business associates, and clients/customers - to access a company’s significant and critical data and services that would usually be relegated to its intranet for internal personnel. This data might include important datasheets and the robust and critical IT and enterprise suites necessary for essential tasks to be completed. Such systems allow third parties to instantly communicate and collaborate on projects and logistical aspects of crucial business operations, giving enterprises an edge in the global market. At the same time, such businesses can scale and impress clients with the use of advanced technology.