What is an Extranet?

February 17, 2010


Intrigued by why my Systems Analysis and Design professor consistently uses the word ‘extranet’ in a form in which I am unfamiliar I have embarked on a quest for realization. It is my extreme hope that in my quest and answer will reveal itself in a form with which I may enhance and compliment my currently miniscule knowledge of all things.

Let us start with what I currently understand an extranet to be:

An extranet is an extension of your internal network (also called the intranet, though I may have to defend that later as well) to the outside. This ‘external’ network may run over the internet (a large group of interconnected networks), or it may be a private connection.

What I currently understand the extranet to exist for:

The extranet is a network designed to connect with another private user or private network, primarily used as a connection between businesses or locations. Extranets do not need to be through businesses only, individuals who own a network (such as a home network) may link their network with an associates network via an extranet. One of the most common extranet configurations is through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It could probably be argued that internet gaming servers use extranets for their players, however I am not going to go into that, I simply want the possibility to be seen.

What I currently understand extranets to be used for:

An extranet is commonly used as the connection through which another party can access a company’s resources. This may be data shares (such as documents), it may be to access an outward facing web application, it may be to access programs which other organizations (such as product suppliers) can use. There are about as many uses for an extranet as there are ideas you can conceive.

How I currently understand the word ‘extranet’ to be misused:

The word ‘extranet’ is misused as a label for what is available on the extranet. Saying something like “the extranet is the application suppliers use” is a mislabeling of the extranet. The proper wording should have been “the application suppliers use is available on the extranet”. This properly shows that the extranet is not the application but rather the method of accessing the application. Similarly saying “the extranet is the developer’s file repository” is another mislabeling. “The developer’s file repository is on the extranet” is the proper wording.

I currently understand ‘extranet’ is misused because:

As with all other context sensitive disciplines, technology has it’s own subset of words and ideas those not a part of it do not understand. Some call this a ‘lingo’. Often those outside the discipline use a term incorrectly and it is easier for those within the discipline to simply understand what is meant than to explain to the user why they are using a term incorrectly. Sometimes this leads to a word or phrase becoming common language. That presents a danger to those within the discipline to whom the errant word or phrase belongs. It creates a sense of confusion and loss of dis-ambiguity that can be hard to correct later on, thus it is important that those inside a discipline understand those words or phrases that are incorrect and how to reinterpret them properly.

How I went about determining what ‘extranet’ means:

  • First I hit Wikipedia. Though many in education believe Wikipedia to be inaccurate and full of errors, Wikipedia in fact has a full staff of people dedicated to ensuring information is correct and highlighting area that may be sketchy and are in need of support. Wikipedia is accurate enough now that much of it is released in book form, similar to that of an encyclopedia.

  • Next I went to http://google.com to verify Wikipedia’s information. I used the following search terms:

    • extranet

    • what is an extranet

  • I compiled a listing of definitions which can be found below, and read several articles, which will also be linked below.

Here are some of the definitions I found on the first page:

  • A private computer network that uses Internet protocols and can be accessed by authorized individuals via the Internet.

  • The extension of a company’s intranet out onto the Internet, e.g. to allow selected customers, suppliers and mobile workers to access the company’s private data and applications via the World Wide Web. Generally an extranet implies real-time access through a firewall of some kind.

  • A network that supplements a closed intranet by providing access to customers, suppliers, subcontractors, and others outside the organization who have a need for selective information from the organization. It is not accessible to the Internet at large.

  • A secure extension of an Intranet that allows external users to access some parts of an organisation’s Intranet

  • Similar to an Intranet, an extranet is designed for authorized access by outside users.

    • http://www.odweb.com/resources/glossary.php#extranet

  • Private networks, connected by the Internet, which allow only users who have a valid password or digital certificate to use the system. The Internet, by comparison, allows any user to access without the verification of the identity of the user.

  • An extranet is a software application that delivers information from within an organisation to a defined group of users outside of that organisation, typically customers, suppliers or business partners. For example, a telephone company may deliver billing information to it’s customers over the web via an extranet.

    • http://www.oranz.co.uk/glossary_text.htm

    • Ben Note: This definition seems to both misuse and use correctly from my current understanding. Take note that it first says it is an application (misuse) and then says via, which implies the extranet is the delivery medium.

  • An intranet that is accessible to computers that are not physically part of a company’s own private network, but that is not accessible to the general public. For example, an extranet allows vendors and business partners to access private areas of a company web site. Users from outside the company’s network usually access the extranet using VPN.

  • A private computer network that uses Internet technology to link an organisation with its suppliers, customers and other collaborators.

  • An extranet is a private network that uses Internet technology and the public telecommunication system to securely share part of a business’s information or operations with suppliers, vendors, partners, customers, or other businesses. An extranet can be viewed as part of a company’s intranet that is extended to users outside the company. It has also been described as a “state of mind” in which the Internet is perceived as a way to do business with other companies as well as to sell products to customers.

  • An “intranet” is the generic term for a collection of private computer networks within an organization. An “extranet” is a computer network that allows controlled access from the outside for specific business or educational purposes. Intranets and extranets are communication tools designed to enable easy information sharing within workgroups.

  • An extranet is a private virtual space to securely collaborate, share information or integrate operations with travelling teams, suppliers, vendors, partners, or customers. A few examples are a sales extranet containing order forms and client directories for the sales team, a partner extranet enabling management of joint tasks, or a customer extranet portal where you collaborate on specifications documents with clients.

  • Answers.com shares several definitions:

    • An extension of an institution’s intranet, especially over the World Wide Web, enabling communication between the institution and people it deals with, often by providing limited access to its intranet.

    • A Web site for customers rather than the general public. It can provide access to research, current inventories and internal databases, virtually any information that is private and not published for everyone. An extranet uses the public Internet as its transmission system, but requires passwords to gain entrance. Access to the site may be free or require payment for some or all of the services offered.

    • Private network that uses the Internet protocols and the public telecommunication system to securely share part of a business’s information or operations with suppliers, vendors, partners, customers, or other businesses. An extranet can be viewed as part of a company’s Intranet that is extended to users outside the company.

    • http://www.answers.com/topic/extranet

Articles I read:

My Conclusion:

The large majority of the articles speak of an extranet as being a network that is connected into and resources are utilized over. There was an article that speaks of an extranet as being a website, however it seems to me that based off the weight of the articles speaking of an extranet as a network that the author of the article using the website as an example of an extranet must be misusing the word. What the author is most probably doing is using the extranet as an alias for what is running on the extranet. If the website is the only thing running on the extranet it might possibly be acceptable to alias the extranet to the website, however the questions most likely asked of a network administrator are “What does your extranet do?”, and “What runs on your extranet?”. The answer to the first may look like “It is a website that does…”, however more than likely the response would sound like “It runs our outward facing website”, which implies that the extranet carries something and is not the application itself. Any answer to the second question assumes the extranet is the medium for transport, not an application.

What I now understand an extranet to be:

An extranet is an extension of an internal network. Extranets seem to primarily be run over the internet, though private connections may be used. Sometimes an outward facing web application is called an extranet, though it seems that it is simply delivered over an extranet as it’s only service. It seems to me that saying a web application that suppliers use is called an extranet may be acceptable here, but only if the person understands that the ‘extranet’ used is not referring the actual network, but to an application running on the network. It must be translated in the person’s head to be proper.

What I now understand extranets to exist for and be used for:

Extranets are used by external networks and users to connect them into a private network, usually at a business. Using an extranet allows the outsider to utilize network resources, such as network data shares (documents) and applications, that are not normally available to the general public.

Final comments:

I believe that an extranet is an extension of an intranet that can be used by outsiders to gain access to network resources, just as my original understanding stated. I also think that extranet is a term that can and is misused, both in the professional and academic worlds. There are many words currently in the english dictionary that have more than one unique meaning. It could be possible that what I am seeing is a shift towards creating an additional definition for extranet, however the evidence currently overwhelmingly is in favor of my original definition. As this is the case, great care should be taken when using extranet to refer to anything other than the network itself. If extranet is used to denote the application running over the extranet it should be known by all parties involved that the extranet term in this instance is being used not in the standard definition way, and the listeners should assume the application is in fact simply a service provided by the extranet, and not the extranet itself.

5 thoughts on “What is an Extranet?

  1. Corey (February 18, 2010)

    It’s you bring with you on fishing trips in case the first net breaks 😀

    1. blobaugh (February 18, 2010)

      Hardy Har Har. You always were the funny one Corey… 😛

  2. anonymous (August 5, 2010)

    Fantastic tutorial – I’m overwhelmed – I’m a junior level support technician in at Israel’s telecommunication company

  3. burberry bags (June 6, 2012)

    Great delivery. Outstanding arguments. Keep up the good effort.

  4. dong (October 12, 2012)

    Amazing info, open and conclusive with the given definitions from the different people and sites. Continue doing what is right for today’s Internet Technology.

    Lab Technician from Philippines