Keeping Pace with Intranet Technologies

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (30-Apr-2008)

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In preparation for another summer filled with outdoor activities, I made a trip to the local pharmacy to stock up on sunscreen lest my skin turn to beef jerky. There I stood, in front of an entire aisle of sunscreen products in every imaginable combination. I had to wade through all the different brands, each proclaiming to do what others don't. But once I settled on a brand I still had to decide between SPF 15, 30, or 45; normal or sensitive skin; regular, sport, or "extreme" (perhaps for your next trip to Mercury?); with or without moisturizer; lotion or spray... I think I even saw one that was labeled "muy caliente."

Choice is good, but sometimes too much choice can be downright confusing and overwhelming. Anyone who's responsible for building or retrofitting an intranet knows how true this is. In order to ensure the longevity of your intranet, you have to choose not only the right tools with which to build your system, but also the technological foundation on which to build it on.

And there's no shortage of choices either—hosted services, commercial software suites, open source frameworks. Every solution within each of these categories is based on its own set of technologies—sometimes-experimental technologies. Your goal is to choose technologies and tools with staying power. But with all the available Web development technologies and intranet frameworks, how do you separate the future development standards from the overnight fads?

Here are some tips to keep in mind when dealing with all the intranet technology and tool choices floating around out there:

Steer Clear of Bleeding Edge Technology

"Version 1.0" is a four-letter word to many users and developers in the technology community. Regardless of how good a technology or tool may look on paper, many version 1.0's are notoriously buggy with an unknown shelf life. They're basically glorified betas. Even if the new technology and tool isn't buggy, it can still suffer poor reception from users and developers, or it can be dropped by those supporting it for any number of reasons.

While it's always a good idea to experiment with new technology for R&D purposes, basing a production intranet on any untested technology is inviting disaster. New technologies and tools need a maturation period. You have no idea where that technology is heading, whether it will be accepted by the industry, and whether it will be recognized as a potential future standard or development tool. The last thing you want is to base an entire system on new technology and then seeing that technology dropped. You'll be left with an obsolete intranet with a very limited support structure.

Keep a Watchful Eye on the Industry

Although I've always cautioned people against the adoption of bleeding edge technology, that doesn't mean you should outright dismiss all new technology. Even if you don't put any of this new technology into practice, you still have to keep abreast of what's being used in the industry. This will help you separate future development standards and platforms from the here today gone tomorrow fads.

There are a lot of no-cost ways to stay in touch with what's happening in the industry:

Seek Information From Independent Sources

It always makes me laugh to see the CEO or CIO of a software company predicting future technology trends. They publicly proclaim with all the confidence in the world that "this is where we're heading" and "that's going to be the future of the industry". But, not surprisingly, their so-called predications always seem to match their company's product development strategy and launch schedule. That's not predicting; that's marketing.

If you want to really know where the industry is heading and what technologies have the potential of becoming an established standard, you need to seek out independent and non-biased sources (such as those mentioned above). Company bigwigs have a financial interest in driving people to their products or services. You need to get information from the trenches, not from a commercial.

Experiment By Doing

There's no substitute for experience. You can only learn so much about a technology or tool by reading about it. Even if a particular technology or tool gets positive reviews from industry analysts and kudos from developers, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a good match for your company's needs. Hype should never be a determining factor in your decision-making process. The only way to find out what works for you is to actually experiment with it. Just make sure that you don't do it on production systems because you'll wind up turning your users into unwitting guinea pigs.

You can download trial versions, or sign up for online demos, of commercial intranet suites. You can explore the inner workings of open-source frameworks and tap into the enormous pool of knowledge in open-source communities. And, time permitting, you can give yourself mini-projects in test environments using the technology or tool you're evaluating. The advantage here is that you can create small test modules related to your current projects. If, in the future, you decide to formally adopt the technology or tool, you'll have something concrete to build upon.

To Be Continued...

As important as it is to stay abreast of the latest technological developments and trends, it's crucial you don't obsess over them. You shouldn't aim to understand every existing and emerging intranet technology (although if you have the capacity to do so, feel free!). If you try to absorb everything at once you're going to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information thrown your way. You'll wind up stressing yourself out and will accomplish little. But after doing some initial homework, you should have enough knowledge to separate the facts from the fads. You can then narrow down your choices and make more educated selections.

In upcoming articles, I'll be exploring some of these technologies and tools in greater detail, and how they measure up against one another.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.