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What is an Extranet? Definitions, Examples & Applications for Businesses

28 Aug 2023

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The lines between a business's digital platforms – from intranets to extranets, and the global internet – are becoming increasingly blurred.

With the rise of remote work and geographically dispersed teams, organisations have the need, now more than ever, to understand the nuances of these platforms and utilise them effectively.

As always, it's crucial to begin with understanding. So, let's dive into the world of extranets.

What is an Extranet?

What is an extranet network, and what is its value to the modern organisation?

Extranet definition

n – also known as a portal. An extranet is a privately maintained computer network that uses the internet to allow partial access to authorised partners, suppliers, vendors, on-road sales staff, customers and other organisations for the purpose of sharing operations and information.

Whether you're looking to improve collaboration with external partners through examples of extranet applications or simply aiming to understand the advantages and disadvantages of extranet, it's clear that digital transformation is reshaping the way organisations operate and communicate. 

For more insights on the different terminology that exist within the digital technology space, check out our 'Content Management Glossary'.

Extranets vs Intranets vs Internet

An intranet is a private network within an organisation, designed to facilitate internal communication, collaboration, and information sharing among employees. Think of it as a company's internal "internet". It’s password-protected, and often hosts tools, resources, and applications that support day-to-day operations, ranging from HR databases and training modules to internal social media platforms and company news feeds.

The internet, often simply referred to as the "net", is a vast, global network of networks, linking millions of private, public, academic, business, and government networks. The internet is public, open, and accessible to anyone with an appropriate device and connection.

Differences between Extranet, Intranet, and Internet:

The difference between extranets, intranets, and the internet revolve around accessibility, purpose, and user scope.

An intranet is a private, internal network restricted to members of an organisation, focusing on enhancing internal communication and operations. In contrast, an extranet bridges the gap between the internal and external, extending select parts of the intranet to trusted external entities like vendors and partners.

On the other hand, the internet is a vast, public network, facilitating global communications and information exchange without the boundaries of organisational affiliations or specific permissions.

Each serves unique purposes, but they collectively underscore the interconnectedness of today's digital age.

To provide a clearer understanding, let's take a look at a concise comparison of these three platforms:

Characteristics Extranet / Portal Intranet  Internet 
 Access  Restricted to specific external and internal users  Restricted to organisation members  Open to all users worldwide
 Purpose  Collaboration with trusted external parties  Internal communications and operations  Global sharing and communication
 Security  High (specific access controls)  High (restricted to employees)  Varies (from highly secure to public)
 Examples of Usage  Vendor management, supply chain communications, partner collaboration  Employee portals, HR resources, internal comms  Websites, global platforms, public forums
 Costs and Infrastructure  Moderate (specific setup required)  Moderate-High (customised setup)  Low-Moderate (depending on scale)

 

For a more in-depth review, check out our blog post on 'Intranets, Extranets and Portals: What's the Difference?'

How Extranets Can Benefit Your Business

As companies increasingly rely on geographically dispersed teams, finding efficient ways to communicate and collaborate across borders becomes essential. Enter the world of extranets. If you've ever asked yourself, "what is extranet?", you're about to discover the key to unlocking untapped potential in business operations.

1. Improved Collaboration with Partners and Suppliers

What is extranet network in the world of modern business? Imagine a digital space where your organisation can seamlessly connect with its partners, suppliers, and other third parties. No more time-wasting email threads or miscommunicated directives.

Extranets allow for real-time collaboration on documents, clearer communication channels, and a centralised space for all collaborative operations.

Consider a retail business that sources products from multiple suppliers globally. An extranet can offer a dedicated space where suppliers upload their inventory in real-time, product specs are shared, and collaborative edits on product designs are made seamlessly. Instead of lengthy email chains that could lead to oversight, all communications are centralised, and everyone remains updated.

2. Enhanced Customer Service

From providing customers with a portal to view real-time order statuses to facilitating direct communications, an extranet system ensures your customers are always in the loop. This transparency not only enhances trust but also minimises potential misunderstandings and errors.

Take a real estate company, for instance. They could use an extranet portal where clients can log in to view property documentation, check the progress of their property transactions, or even schedule viewings. Such a system reduces miscommunication, builds trust, and provides customers with a sense of involvement and clarity in the process.

3. Increased Efficiency

One of the significant advantages of extranet is its power to streamline processes. Instead of toggling between various platforms or waiting on responses from external partners, an extranet centralises interactions and necessary data. This reduces the time spent on administrative tasks, allowing teams to focus on what they do best.

A large consultancy firm working on a nationwide project can use an extranet to consolidate research data from various regions. Instead of multiple regional teams sending in reports in varying formats, they could update a unified template on the extranet. This would ensure that when the head office collates data, it's uniform, comprehensive, and ready for analysis.

4. Reduced Costs

While setting up an extranet might require an initial investment, the long-term savings are notable. Think about the reduced overheads: fewer physical meetings mean less travel. Digitised and streamlined processes mean less paperwork and quicker turnarounds. Over time, these savings can be substantial.

Imagine a multinational corporation conducting quarterly review meetings with regional heads. Instead of flying in executives from around the globe, an extranet can host virtual meetings, share presentations, and even allow for real-time collaborative feedback. The savings on travel, accommodation, and logistics can be rerouted into other growth avenues.

How to Set Up an Extranet / Portal

From facilitating robust collaborations with partners and suppliers to ensuring that data and resources are efficiently shared across geographically dispersed teams, extranets serve as the bridge between an organisation and its external stakeholders.

Choosing the Right Software

Your choice of software will determine the functionality, usability, and security of your extranet. Here are common enterprise portal features and capabilities:

User-Friendly Interface

The software should be intuitive, ensuring that users, irrespective of their technical proficiency, can navigate and utilise it effectively.

A clean, organised dashboard with easy-to-find functions enhances the user experience, leading to better engagement and productivity.

Granular Access Control

The software should allow you to define user roles meticulously. This ensures that users can only access the data and tools relevant to their role, safeguarding sensitive information.

Role-based permissions help maintain data integrity and security.

Scalability

As your organisation grows, so will the demands on your extranet. Opt for software that scales seamlessly, accommodating more users, larger data volumes, and advanced functionalities without hiccups.

Modularity can be an asset, allowing you to add features or integrations as needed.

Robust Security Features

Encryption, both for data in transit and at rest, should be a standard feature.

The software should facilitate strong authentication methods, preferably offering two-factor or multi-factor authentication.

Regular automated backups and a clear disaster recovery plan are essential to ensure business continuity.

Collaboration Tools

Given the collaborative nature of extranets, look for software that boasts features like real-time editing, shared calendars, task management, and discussion forums.

Integration with popular third-party collaboration tools can further boost productivity.

Integration Capabilities

Ensure the software can easily integrate with other systems your organisation uses. Whether it’s your portal's single sign-on system, CRM, ERP, or any other tool, seamless integration facilitates smoother operations and data flow.

APIs and webhooks can be crucial for creating bespoke integrations as needed.

Comprehensive Reporting and Analytics

Detailed logging features enable you to monitor user activity, offering insights into user behaviour and potential security threats.

Analytics can guide data-driven decision-making, helping you understand how the extranet is utilised and where improvements might be needed.

Mobile Responsiveness and Apps

In today's mobile-centric world, ensuring that the extranet is accessible and functional on smartphones and tablets is crucial.

Dedicated mobile apps, optimised for different platforms, can enhance the user experience manifold.

Support and Training

Choose a software provider known for robust customer support. Having experts guide you, especially during the initial setup and any troubleshooting, can be invaluable.

Portal training resources, whether in the form of webinars, tutorials, or documentation, help users make the most of the extranet.

Content Management System (CMS)

A CMS isn’t just for building websites. Given the right capabilities, it offers a highly flexible and scalable solution for extranets (aka CMS portals). Not only does it allow easy content updates, but the best part is its versatility.

With a robust CMS, organisations can seamlessly deploy intranets and websites on the same platform. This unified approach reduces complexities and streamlines digital operations.

Securing Your Extranet / Portal

In a world where cyber threats are ever-evolving, securing your extranet should be top priority. Remember, while intranets focus on internal operations, extranets are exposed to external entities, which can sometimes introduce vulnerabilities.

  • Authentication: Implement strong authentication methods. Two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA) are excellent choices.
  • Data Encryption: Ensure that data, both in transit and at rest, is encrypted. This shields sensitive information from potential breaches.
  • Regular Audits: Regularly evaluate and audit your extranet's security protocols. This proactive approach helps in identifying potential vulnerabilities before they become threats.

Managing Your Extranet / Portal Users

With multiple users accessing the extranet, often from diverse geographical locations, user management is crucial. Here's what to consider:

  • Defined User Roles: Clearly define user roles. Not every partner or external entity needs access to all information. Assign permissions based on roles to ensure data integrity.
  • Onboarding & Training: As you onboard new users, provide them with adequate training. This not only acquaints them with the platform but also informs them of best practices and security protocols.
  • Monitoring & Reporting: Keep a keen eye on user activity. Advanced CMS platforms will offer detailed logging and reporting features. If any suspicious activity arises, being able to trace actions back to specific users can be invaluable.

Frequently asked questions

There are many web portal best practices and accompanying questions to answer. Here are the most common questions we receive on the topic of extranets.

What are the Risks Associated with Using an Extranet?

Like any technology, extranets can present risks, primarily centred around security breaches. These risks could be unauthorised data access, data leaks, or exposure to cyber threats.

However, with the right security protocols, user access management, and continuous monitoring, these risks can be mitigated.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Extranet?

Advantages:

  • Enhanced collaboration with external stakeholders, streamlined supply chain management, and better customer engagement.
  • The key benefit of a quality extranet is the speed and ease at which you can share data and communications with certain groups of people. Simply add information once, and you can set access permissions to determine who will be able to view and use that information. This information is accessible from any device and any location.
  • With greater communication comes greater efficiency and productivity. An extranet helps to reduce frustrations, frictions and miscommunications between your team and those who communicate with them. You can save time on inventory management, workflows and a range of other aspects.

Disadvantages:

  • Potential security risks if not adequately managed and the need for ongoing maintenance and monitoring.
  • Extranets can be complex to plan and set up because every organisation’s needs are different. However, your choice in provider can make all the difference. Choosing a well-structured extranet CMS and an experienced provider can result in a straightforward process and a successful result.
  • Extranets can be costly, but again your choice of provider can make all the difference between a cost-prohibitive or cost-effective extranet solution. With Elcom, for example, you could even choose to incorporate your intranet, e-learning and website CMS into the same system to minimise costs.

How Much Does It Cost to Set Up and Maintain an Extranet?

Costs vary significantly based on the scale, functionalities, and chosen platform. Initial setup might involve software purchase or licensing fees, hardware (if hosting on-premise), and development costs.

Maintenance costs include hosting, periodic updates, security measures, and user training. It's crucial to view these expenses as investments towards more streamlined operations and collaboration.

Which Type of Extranet is Right for My Business?

This depends on your organisation's specific needs. Do you want a portal for vendors? Or perhaps a collaborative space for multi-organisation projects?

Your business goals will dictate the extranet type. It's also beneficial to partner with experts like Elcom, who can guide you towards a solution tailored for your needs.

Remember, the most important part is to offer captivating content on your portal, otherwise it will become a ghost town and the type of extranet you choose won't make a difference!

How Can I Manage My Extranet Users?

Effective user management involves defining clear user roles, setting access permissions, regular audits, and training users.

Modern extranet solutions come with intuitive dashboards, allowing admins to add, modify, or revoke access seamlessly. Regular training ensures users understand protocols, reducing the risk of accidental breaches.

Examples of Extranet / Portal Applications

1. Supplier Portals

Overview: Supplier Portals are a dedicated platform that allows businesses to manage and communicate with their vendors and suppliers. It can oversee every aspect, from procurement to payments.

Example: A large retail chain utilising a supplier portal to coordinate with hundreds of suppliers. They can place orders, track shipments, process invoices, and handle disputes, all within a unified space.

Benefits:

  • Streamlined operations reducing order-to-delivery times.
  • Real-time monitoring leading to better inventory management.
  • Improved vendor relationships through transparent and efficient communication.

2. Collaborative and Community Portals

Overview: Collaboration and community portalsare dedicated platforms where multiple organisations can work together on joint projects. It's a space where teams can share files, collaborate in real-time, and track project milestones.

Example: A construction project involving employees, architects, contractors, suppliers, and regulatory bodies. Each party can access relevant documents, provide input, and track project progress.

Benefits:

  • Consolidation of resources, reducing back-and-forths and potential errors.
  • Enhanced transparency among all stakeholders.
  • Faster decision-making due to real-time updates and communication.

3. Customer Portals

Overview: These portals are designed to provide customers with a personalised space where they can access resources, raise queries, or even make purchases. There are also membership portals for customers who have signed up to membership programs.

Example: A software-as-a-service (SaaS) company offering a portal where clients can access training materials, log support tickets, download software updates, and interact with community forums.

Benefits:

  • Strengthened customer relationships through personalised experiences.
  • Reduced customer support overheads as users can access self-help resources.
  • Increased customer retention through the provision of value-added services.

4. Training Portals

Overview: Organisations, especially in sectors like healthcare or finance, often use extranets to provide training modules and certification processes for external stakeholders.

Example: A pharmaceutical company offering an extranet platform where medical professionals can access training on new drugs, attend webinars, and even obtain certifications after successful assessments.

Benefits:

  • Ensuring that external professionals are up-to-date with the latest products or services.
  • Establishing a standardised training mechanism.
  • Building brand loyalty and credibility among professionals.

5. Partner Portals

Overview: Businesses can provide an up-to-date company information and communications exclusively for their distributors and partners, allowing them to check availability, specifications, and pricing.

Example: An electronics manufacturer giving its global distributors access to their latest product range, promotional materials, and even exclusive distributor discounts.

Benefits:

  • Empowering partners with the information they need to sell effectively.
  • Ensuring consistent product information dissemination.
  • Enhancing sales strategies based on real-time product updates and availability.

For more examples of extranet applications, visit Elcom’s client showcase.

Conclusion

Extranets, with their ability to foster collaboration, enhance customer relationships, boost efficiency, and reduce costs, are undoubtedly a worthy addition to any modern organisation’s toolkit.

As we embrace a world where borders blur and real-time collaboration becomes the norm, isn’t it time your business tapped into the power of extranets?

Is Elcom what your organisation needs?

  • Do you want all sections of your organisation to be pulling in the same direction towards the same goal?
  • Do you need an efficient and secure means of managing and auditing company documents and of collaborating with your partners, vendors and customers?
  • Do your employees need an easy-to-use, searchable Knowledge Base?
  • Would you like to manage your salesforce more efficiently and inform your employees of changes to important policy and procedures?
  • Does your organisation need to increase efficiencies in information management, and require information to be secure, searchable, navigable, gatherable and retrieved at any stage of the process in real-time by individual users or groups without waiting for a webmaster or IT staff?

Elcom fulfils all of these requirements and more. What’s more, as your company’s internet usage increases and your online extranet community grows, Elcom can integrate other modules from its suite of business tools to assist you to leverage off your extranet investment.

Elcom Web Portal Software

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