How to setup an intranet with free open source software

September 9, 2008

How to setup an intranet with free open source software Even the smallest business or organization can benefit from an intranet.  Information, documents, communication and more can be centralized in one web-based environment- accessible from anywhere, by anyone within the organization.  While this used to be a complicated process involving hardware and proprietary software, it’s much easier these days with the use of a variety of free open source software.

While the structuring and extensiveness of an intranet depends on your specific situation and organization, there are some basic tools and applications that act as a core in any intranet.  Primarily, communication and groupware are the main staples- this can include things like central calendaring, internal forums, group-based document depositories, project-management environments, and more. 

Through the use of freely available open source software, you can basically piece together an intranet based on your needs.  Most aspects of an intranet can be found through the use of one open source script or another.  For example, if you’re organization employs several “work-at-home” employees, you can install a forum script, a project-management script, and a document depository, which would give all your employees web-based access to an internal forum that allows on-going group-discussions, as well as a separate project management dashboard for things like collectively writing documents, contributing to research, etc.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll be discussing PHP-based open source scripts, that make use of a MYSQL database to store its information.  There are several other options not involving PHP-based scripts, but a majority of intranet-based software is written for PHP/MYSQL.  The basic installation process is similar for all scripts that make up an intranet:

  1. Download the software as a zip file, and extract the files to your desktop.
  2. Connect via FTP to your web-server, and upload the extracted files to your “public_html” folder
  3. Setup a new SQL database in cPanel, and connect it to a user with admin permissions
  4. Install the script using its own web-based installer, including connecting the script to the new database
  5. Configure the new software to suit your needs and specifications.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Before anything, you need to chose where you’d like to install your intranet.  If your organization already has a website, it’s standard practice to place your intranet on a suitable sub-domain such as “http://internal.companyname.com” or simply just “i.companyname.com” but it’s your choice whether you’d like to place your intranet somewhere else on your companies domain, or on a completely separate domain all together- i.e. “companyname-internal.com.” Once you’ve chosen a location, it’s time to start figuring out what software you need and where to find it. 

Analyze your organization’s needs in terms of team-member size, need for communication, need for collaboration and so on.  It might be as simple as only needing an internal groupware platform that provides the basic essentials of group-calendaring, contacts, messaging, document repository, etc, or you may have a larger organization that requires the basics plus advanced tools such on-going web-based educational tools, document editing, company Wikis, sales-tracking and CRM software, and more.

Make a list of what you’ll need, or what the essentials are right now as you can add more later on.  For the purpose of this tutorial, we’ll assume you want the following tools and services as part of your organization’s web-based intranet:

  1. Groupware software.  This provides an all-inclusive platform that usually includes things like central contacts, file depository, task-management, projects, to-do lists, calendaring, etc.  Open source groupware scripts are a great starting point for an intranet as they provide the basics. 
  2. Internal forums.  Forums are a great method to centralize discussion for a group.  Most people familiar with the internet have usually already had experience interacting on a forum.  There are several quality open source forum scripts available.
  3. Sales and CRM software.  CRM or “customer relationship management” software is a great way to centralize sales-based information and lead tracking for an organization involved in sales of any kind.  Things like scheduled calls, lead management, sales-goals tracking and more can be found using open source software.

Now that you know what your organization needs, it’s time to start finding and downloading the necessary software.  We’ll start with groupware software, and work down the list, while explaining the steps in greater detail.

*Groupware software – There are hundreds of groupware scripts available, many of which offer very simple functionality.  It’s important to go with software that can be easily extendable with the use of modules or plugins.  As your company grows, and more functionality is needed, you can simply install additional modules instead of having to switch to another script and start all over.  A simple Google search of “open source groupware” will return many results, but one of my favorites has to be Group-Office.  Visit a demo of the platform here, to see what it looks like.  Use “admin” for both the username and password. 

Install Group-Office:

  1. Download the zip file here, and extract the files to your desktop
  2. Upload the files via FTP to your web server.  Make sure you upload them to the right sub-domain folder of your choosing.
  3. Go to your web-browser and go to: “http://”your Group-Office installation”/install/install.php”  For example, if you want this groupware to be located on the sub-domain “internal” you would go to “http://internal.companyname.com/install/install.php”  If everything was uploaded correctly, you should be presented with an automatic installation script that will guide you through the rest of the installation and configuration.  If you have any problems or questions you can access the documentation for Group-Office here
  4. Once the installation is complete, you can now start configuring your organization and user information to your liking.
  5. Once complete, you should have a working basic-intranet located on the sub-domain of your choosing.

*Internal forums – Like groupware software, there are tons of open source forum scripts available.  There’s only a select few that offer the dependability and extendibility that an intranet requires.  My favorite by far, and the one I’ve used most heavily in the past is phpBB.  It’s provides one of the slickest user interfaces, and overall ease-of-use that tops all other forum scripts in my book.  Visit a demo of the forum here, to see what it looks like.  Use “admin” as the username, and “demodemo” as the password. 

Install phpBB:

  1. Download the zip file here, and extract the files to your desktop
  2. Upload the files via FTP to your web server.  Make sure you upload them to a directory of the sub-domain you installed Group-Office on.  For example; “http://internal.companyname.com/forum”
  3. Go to your web-browser and go to the new location; “http://internal.companyname.com/forum”  PhpBB will automatically detect that it is not yet been installed and forward you to the installation screen. (similar to above)  If you have any problems or questions while installing phpBB, you can refer to the online documentation located here.
  4. Once the installation is complete, you can now start configuring your forums and internal structuring to your liking.
  5. Once complete, you should have a working instance of phpBB acting as an internal forum in a directory labeled “forum” on the sub-domain of your Group-Office installation. 

*Sales and CRM software – There aren’t many full-featured CRM platforms available beyond simple sales tracking software.  Popular CRM software such as Salesforce.com are expensive and negate the freely open source aspect of this intranet.  Luckily, a competitor to Salesforce that in many ways is superior, is available for free as open source software.  SugarCRM “community edition” is a full-featured CRM that takes into account nearly every aspect of a sales process from call logs, email, appointments, and leads, to full-out forecasting and analytical features.  Visit a demo of SugarCRM here, to see what it looks like and to see what it can do.  Use “will” as both the username and password.

Install SugarCRM:

  1. Download the zip file here, and extract the files to your desktop
  2. Upload the files via FTP to your web server.  Make sure you upload them to a directory of the sub-domain you installed Group-Office on.  For example; “http://internal.companyname.com/crm”
  3. Go to your web-browser and go to the new location; “http://internal.companyname.com/crm  SugarCRM will automatically detect that it is not yet been installed and forward you to the installation screen. (similar to above)  If you have any problems or questions while installing SugarCRM, you can refer to the online documentation located here.
  4. Once the installation is complete, you can now start configuring your users and internal structuring to your liking.  There are several options and sections to SugarCRM, so take your time understanding what everything does.  It’s a powerful platform that incorporates some advanced features and tools.
  5. Once complete, you should have a working internal CRM in a directory labeled “crm” on the sub-domain of your Group-Office installation. 

The process is similar for any type of script you want to add to your intranet, but for the sake of this example, we’ll stop there.  At this point, you should have an working intranet with the following structure:

  • Main intranet homepage (Group-Office) located at “internal.companyname.com
  • Internal forums located on your intranet at “internal.companyname.com/forum
  • CRM located on your intranet at “internal.companyname.com/crm

Once you have your basic intranet in place on your sub-domain, you can keep adding directories with different scripts to extend the functionality further as your needs and user-numbers grow. 

Once all the software is found, installed, and basically configured, the task at hand is to start setting up users, user-groups, user-permissions, etc. to further customize your intranet to the specifications of your organization.  This is where the use of the supporting documentation comes in handy, as everyone’s situation is different.  In subsequent tutorials, I’ll discuss how to extend your intranet further, as well as digging deeper into the customization of your intranet.  I hope this has helped you in some way- if nothing else, opened your eyes to the possibilities of open source software.  Stay tuned!

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