Extranets - Server options

Extranet is the term used to describe the process of extending your internal computer system - whether it is a standalone PC or a network - onto the Internet and letting people interact with your internal system via the Internet. These people are typically customers, staff and/or suppliers.

Extranets come in come in many shapes and sizes. The right way to link with your customers depends on where you start, your objectives and your budget. Our overarching advice - go for what works for you AND your customers.

You don't have to spend a fortune to get started. This page provides a broad overview of the different options available at each stage of Extranet development - from simple low-cost e-mail and "peer to peer" solutions through to more complex, and therefore more expensive technologies.

The server technology you are using will determine what level of extranet you can build. The following table summarises the mainstream extranet scenarios.

EXTRANET SCENARIOS

Email Only

...with Attachments

...with attachments and EMU

"Brochureware" Web Sites

...with eMail

...with eMail and Forms/Files

...with eMail, Forms/Files and PERL/PHP Scripts
"Database-Driven" Web Sites
"Peer to Peer" Extranets

A server is a computer that manages various forms of Internet traffic. What a server can do depends on the capabilities of the software it is running.

Servers can range from one physical machine that performs all Internet-related functions through to a server "farm" where hundreds of computers automatically share the traffic workload and each cluster of individual physical servers is processing just one type of transaction - for example just e-mail or just web pages.

Despite the range of possible variations and the types of transactions servers process, a typical company has only four broad options. These are:

  • Shared Servers
  • Dedicated Servers
  • In-House Servers
  • Peer-to-Peer solutions

Shared Servers - Most web sites run on shared servers. The computer acting as a server is controlled and serviced by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Multiple web sites are usually "hosted" on one server.

The upside is that sharing a server is cheap when compared to controlling and servicing your own server.

The downside is that the range of services you can set up on your web site can be limited by the ISP you are using - for example some ISPs allow you to set up custom programs called "scripts" (see below) that can enhance your Internet services, while others do not - usually because they are concerned that rogue scripts related to your site will compromise the performance of the shared server.

Dedicated Servers - If you want 100% control over your extranet / web site server, then you need a dedicated server that you do not need to share with any other extranets / web sites.

Dedicated servers are managed by ISP's on your behalf. The costs are higher than a Shared Server, but this option provides you with much more flexibility. Linking options are the pretty much the same as for Shared Servers.

In-house Servers - This option means that you take full responsibility for your own extranet / web site server. The running costs are higher than for Dedicated Servers because you need to employ people to keep your server(s) running 24/7/365, and you will probably need to have duplicate backup hardware on "warm" standby.

The BIG benefit is that your in-house server becomes another computer on your internal network. Access to your web site is as fast as it is to other machines on your network.

Your web site and your internal applications can share the same data in the same database. This means that you can have a "real time" web server - i..e an extranet / web site that is interacting directly with your internal systems.

Peer-to-Peer Servers - This option is a relatively new arrival but it holds a lot of promise as a low-cost way for companies to manage an Extranet. Strictly speaking any computer operating in a peer-to-peer environment is in fact a mix of end-user and server.

If you are into music you have probably heard of Napster - the first wildly successful "Peer to Peer" network. Napster allowed anyone to use their desktop machine as a web server. A Napster user could search for music files across all computers on the Internet that were running Napster at the time (there were normally thousands). When a Napster user located a music file they wanted, they used Napster to copy the file directly from their fellow Napster users' machine to their computer. There was no need to have a Central Server containing music files - i.e. no "Boss" computer - hence the term "Peer to Peer".


To summarise, the type of server you use affects your options when planning to introduce your Extranet. You also need to consider the different ways you want to be able to communicate with your customers, staff and/or suppliers.

For more information about the kinds of things you need to know when considering developing YOUR extranet click on the link below that most closely describes your current situation.

See also: E-Mail Only systems | Brochureware Sites | Database-driven Sites | Peer-to-Peer solutions

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