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Intranet Management

Internet, intranet, and extranet: Understanding the differences (and similarities!)

Most of us know these terms, but do we really understand what they mean? And how do we know when to use what?

6 minute read
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Intranet Use Cases

At ThoughtFarmer, we’ve been around intranets so long that we often forget that just because we understand all the terminology doesn’t mean everyone else does too.  

In this article we break down the differences between the internet, an intranet, and an extranet. We look at the history, the role each one plays in today’s workforce, and the best use cases for each platform. 

Even if these terms and definitions seem obvious to you, it’s still worth understanding their origins. Besides, when was the last time you impressed your colleagues with some technical wisdom? 

What is the internet?

While most of us rely on the internet everyday, very few of us can explain succinctly what it actually is. 

The internet is defined as a worldwide system of computer networks in which users at any one computer can, if they have permission, get information from any other computer (and sometimes talk directly to users at other computers). 

Sometimes referred to as a “network of networks,” the Internet was first conceived in 1969 by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. government. First known as the ARPANET, the original aim was to create a network that would allow users of a research computer at one university to talk to research computers at other universities.

The internet did not become visible to the general public until the early 1990s. Today It is used by many as their primary source of information, and fueled the creation and growth of its own social ecosystem through social media and content sharing. 

Today, the internet is used to communicate across large or small distances, share information from any place in the world, and access information or answers to almost any question in moments. Approximately five billion people, or more than half of the world’s population, now have access to the Internet. Worldwide access to the internet helped organizations stay productive and connected during the pandemic, and paved the way for the hybrid workplace

The internet is often mistaken for the World Wide Web, however, they are quite distinct from  each other. The Internet is a global connection of networks while the Web is a collection of information that can be accessed using the Internet. In other words, the Internet is the infrastructure and the Web is a service on top.

What is an intranet? 

An intranet can be understood as a private extension of the internet confined to an organization. It is basically an internal website that helps employees get stuff done. 

The first intranet sites began to appear in organizations around the mid 1990’s, and served to provide one-way content and communication. 

Whether they were built or bought, early intranets were not designed for collaboration, they were built for top-down communication. A store of organizational knowledge that could be organized in such a way that it could be accessed quickly and easily by that organization’s employees. Since then intranets have evolved into a much more valuable tool for employees and organizations. Modern intranets, if deployed correctly, can facilitate bottom-up and horizontal communication, encourage collaboration, enhance productivity, and even promote culture.

When the concept of Web 2.0 was popularized in 2004, it represented a huge shift in the way digital information was managed. Now, the way people live and work is drastically different. The rapid rise of social media combined with the evolution of  smartphones has changed how people get things done and interact with each other. 

Clearbox Screencap Accessibility 042622

Today, an intranet wears many hats inside an organization. It’s a website, communications channel, knowledge management tool, culture tool, and collaboration platform. It helps people work better by combining the best features of wikis, blogs, document and content management systems. An intranet makes it easy for everyone inside an organization to contribute—whether remote or in-person.  

For a more detailed understanding on the definition of intranet, please view our post: What is an intranet? The definitive explanation.

What is an extranet?

While an intranet connects employees inside an organization, an extranet connects employees to external parties. An extranet is defined as: a controlled private network allowing customers, partners, vendors, suppliers and other businesses to gain information, typically about a specific company or educational institution, and do so without granting access to the organization’s entire network. 

In simpler words, an intranet is for your employees, and an extranet is for external stakeholders. 

Some of the information on your intranet may even be identical to that on your extranet, but the extranet instance itself is still quite unique.

The objectives associated with an extranet are really no different than those associated with an intranet: Engagement, business efficiency, communication, collaboration, and knowledge management. 

For  example, many organizations rely on contractors to help keep their business running. By leveraging an external site, all contractor details can be contained in one system, complete with contractor resumes, and areas of expertise. 

Another common scenario is board portals. By using a board portal (extranet), external group members can securely access board documents and meeting minutes, while collaborating with other board members electronically.

For a deeper understanding of extranets, and to view additional use cases, please view our post: What is an extranet? And does your organization need one?

What role can these platforms play in your organization?

Learn about the different use cases, and how they can help you push forward a business case for intranet software.

Read more

The differences and similarities between an internet, intranet & extranet

While the internet connects many people to many websites, an intranet is a site that connects people within an organization. An extranet is similar to an intranet but is a site that connects people inside an organization with external parties, like board of directors, or vendors, so they can easily collaborate and share information. 

Despite the differences between the three platforms, there are also many similarities and benefits to all three, including:

  • Access to information, knowledge and people.
  • An increased ability to communicate, connect and share.
  • The ability to work from home, collaborate and access a global workforce.
  • The ability to save data and easily share files with cloud storage.
  • The ability to communicate and access information through a mobile device.

If you are new to intranets and extranets, hopefully this helped clarify their purpose and role. For further reading, and for next steps in your intranet journey, we recommend downloading Building an Intranet Business Case