Net gain: a link to profit by

Today more than ever before, as practices grow and spread geographically, there is a need to communicate, not just internally but also with clients and external bodies.

At the technological heart of the communication demands of your practice is network computing, whether it be a local area network, an intranet or the Internet.

The Internet is a global network which is now estimated to consist of around 10 million computers (supporting some 26 million users), all successfully connected because they share a common language known as IP or Internet Protocol.

In 1993, the World Wide Web launched the Internet into consumer and corporate culture, when for the first time the transfer and display of media rich documents (with graphics, sound and animation) became possible. Internet pages are viewed through Web Browsers, software applications that request documents from a Web server, a powerful computer holding the data for the pages.

These Web documents are most commonly written in HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language) which is the industry standard way of encoding documents containing text and graphics. It works by stating the function of the text and so is platform independent.

An intranet deploys Internet technology inside an organisation. It employs the core technologies of the World Wide Web, so that the user interface to an intranet is a Web browser, and most information is delivered via Web or HTTP servers and along the same lines.

The Internet allows a practice to communicate with external entities. It allows data transfer between locations, be they internal – to other offices, for example – or external – linking to the Lord Chancellor's department, clients or other organisations that hold relevant infor- mation. This means a real-time transfer of data and not a static one-way process of information gathering and exchange.

Equally, a Web site for your practice can advertise and promote of the services delivered by your firm. Legal services can also be offered over the Internet – for example, via subscription and password entry to private sites.

Some of the benefits an intranet can bring to your practice include fast and efficient internal communications, easy management and delivery of information.

Intranet technology also provides links and access to corporate knowhow, providing cost savings and improved employee productivity as well as a universal interface for your clients.

When companies connect to the Internet or other networks, securing them against break-ins is vital. A firewall system prevents unauthorised access to internal systems from the interface you want people to see. Securing the virtual private network itself is carried out by secure network solutions such as the SunScreen SPF-100, which encrypts data and secures connections between sites.

Java is another aspect of the Internet that may prove useful. It is an object-oriented programming language, developed by Sun Microsystems to bring interactive functions to the Internet and to be truly platform independent.

This means that Java breaks the fixed links between applications and operating systems so developers can create applications that run anywhere.

Java applications or "applets" can be downloaded from the Web just like Web pages, and are distributed in byte code format. They run on a java virtual machine which sits on top of your computer's operating system, but since they run inside the virtual machine the applets are also very secure.