A World Wide Web server uses TCP/IP protocol to search and retrieve files, which can include text, video, graphics and music, requested by a user.
"With Web technology, a lot of things have gotten a lot easier," said Doug K. LeDu, a partner in the Sacramento office of KPMG Peat Marwick.
KPMG is working with several states, including Montana, on using Web servers for data collection. Funding for schools is based primarily on the data they present to state departments of education, so the more compelling the data, the better chance the school has of getting the money.
In Montana, KPMG has automated the data collection process in all 485 school districts. "It's the perfect application," said LeDu.
He said the clamor for government information is louder than ever and companies such as Mountain View, Calif.-based Netscape Communications Corp., Oracle Corp. in Redwood Shores, Calif., and Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM are happy to help out. A Web server requires hardware, operating system software and other collaborative tools and software.
KPMG is competing for a $2.5 million state project for Oregon's 190 school districts. The contract, which will make use of Internet servers, is expected to be awarded in September.
A new IBM server is already in beta tests in the school system, said KPMG's LeDu. KPMG currently has a similar three-year contract worth $600,000 with Montana. "The technology allows the user to reliably and cheaply connect to a central repository without custom software," said LeDu.
IBM has spent the past 18 months gearing up to be a major Internet server player. "We're now working on the exploitation of this [work]," said Tim Dougherty, networkcentric solutions manager at IBM. "Our chairman has staked out this ground for IBM," he said.
Dougherty said service to the citizen applications, which are designed to dramatically improve the level of government customer service, are a major part of IBM's Internet server business.
Database search and retrieval options especially draw government customers, he said, because Internet servers allow "dynamic" or constantly updated information to be searched rather than just "static" sites. Searches can be complex. "The way you ask for data may be much different from the next person," Dougherty said.
One Internet server project completed recently by IBM for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office put all the patents filed in the United States since 1973 on a site. This site can be searched by both Patent Office employees and the average citizen. "The data already existed; it's just another way to present it," he said.
IBM has already made international inroads with Internet servers. For example, the local government of Regione Emilia-Romagna, which is north of Tuscany, Italy, is using an IBM server to connect Tuscan residents to local government data, including local laws, contracts and grant information, on the Internet.
The whole Internet server market is still, however, in its infancy, Dougherty said.
And among the companies selling servers, there is a battle over which operating system to use, with the most popular being NT and Unix.
A recent study by International Data Corp. found that NT is being used on Internet access servers almost twice as often as Unix. However, Unix still may rebound a bit over the rest of this year, IDC predicts. Although it comes in third place, Novell's NetWare platform has surprising potential, the study found.
Netscape claims to set itself apart by not focusing on a specific operating system. "We're agnostic when it comes to operating type," said John Menkart, federal regional manager for Netscape, who works out of the company's Bethesda, Md., office. Netscape now has nine server and database connectivity products.
Netscape's Suite Spot server offerings control 85 percent of the entire Internet and intranet server market, according to Zona Research in Mesa, Ariz.
Zona also found that Netscape has a 50 percent market share in the Internet e-mail server area. That makes Netscape by far No. 1 in that market followed by Microsoft with 18 percent and Lotus at 4 percent.
In the early days of the company, Netscape executives thought this about the Internet server: "Here is a technology that will overtake and replace client/server as people know it," said Menkart.
Government customers, though, have much different needs than their commercial counterparts, said Menkart, not the least of which is unbeatable security.
And, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, after June 30, 1997, government agencies can only purchase cryptology products that have tested successfully under the Cryptographic Module Validation program. Netscape's servers have gone through the testing and the company is now awaiting an answer, said Menkart. "A lot of other companies chose to ignore this [requirement]," he said. "We are the only one listed as being in the testing phase."
Of course, some of these companies are forming strategic alliances to better tackle the server market. Data General Corp. in Westborough, Mass., said in August that it will integrate WebEngine DB, a product of WebEngine Inc., Burlington, Mass., into its products to let users access data though the Internet or intranets. WebEngine DB manages database requests and has what the company calls server-to-database technology.
Earlier this summer, the products Netscape SuiteSpot and Oracle8 were combined to offer access to existing data. Government agencies can integrate company information and other data into Internet and intranet applications with Netscape Enterprise Server Pro.
In late July, Netscape announced other server partnerships with NCR, Attachmate, Information Builders and Kiva Software. Specifically, those companies are working with Netscape on creating applications to work with mainframe database to access financial information, credit histories, health care information, human resources records and purchase order archives.
Although the mainframe has gotten little respect since the arrival of the personal computer, it is an important part of the server market. About 70 percent of business-critical information resides on mainframes, according to Mark Vanston, an analyst with the Meta Group, Stamford, Conn.
And the king of mainframes, IBM, has taken advantage of that opportunity. The government has been a little late in coming to this space, said IBM's Dougherty, but it is now starting to catch up.
Chris Bolinger, Web server product manager at the VM software division of Sterling Software in Reston, Va., said that Web servers are perfect for mainframes because they take information and transform it into a much more readable format. Sterling accesses the legacy data and applications on mainframes, including so-called homegrown applications, making the information look better on the way.
The green screens of mainframe computers are notoriously difficult to work with, especially now that people are accustomed to easy-to-read Windows formats. "People just don't like the interfaces on mainframes," he said. Sterling's Web front application is now being used by about 85 customers, 25 percent of which are government, said Bolinger.
The other option, replacing mainframe information entirely, involves software and infrastructure changes and re-training that can run a company millions of dollars, he said.
Earlier this summer, Sterling formed a partnership with IBM to jointly offer a service that will Web-enable legacy systems. The two companies also joined in July to offer Web access and a graphical interface for IBM's e-mail and calendar system.
Sterling is finding that its government customers are using Web servers primarily to send and receive information internally. About 80 percent of Sterling's server market is from intranets.
"E-commerce is still mostly hype," said Bolinger. One of its customers, the Internal Revenue Service, hired Sterling to put large amounts of information on internal Web servers for employees. Other federal clients include the Air Force and Navy.
Sterling created an intranet and Web server strategy for the Kelly Air Force Base Defense Megacenter in San Antonio where the system is used for confidential communication, civilian personnel record storage and parts inventory for jet engines. Field technicians log on to access the inventory and find equipment they need.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics contracted with ISYS/Odyssey Development in Englewood, Colo., to enable its economists in the field to use a Web server to search through intranets.
Another trend now in the server market is toward thin client/server, which means software applications run from a central server rather than users' desktops.
Those promoting the technology, including Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., and Rockville, Md.-based systems integrator Vericom Systems Inc., claim the system makes managing networks easier while reducing costs.
Beyond employees simply accessing information using Internet servers, they are using the technology to collaborate on projects.
DataBeam's neT.120 Conference Server, introduced in June, offers real-time collaboration over the Internet and corporate intranets. The Lexington, Ky.-based company's server works with data conferencing products such as Microsoft's NetMeeting and Intel's ProShare. The server has four levels of security for conferences.
DataBeam's work with the government in this area goes back to 1987 when it helped support the Department of Defense's teleconferencing network through an electronic meeting system. In July, the neT.120 Conference Server won the McLean, Va.-based International Teleconferencing Association's product of the year award for audiographics.
Ultimately, such offerings are hoped to reduce travel costs for companies and agencies and help people make decisions quicker.
Another server option that is winning awards and getting noticed is Whistle Communications Corp.'s InterJet 100 net server. It's tiny - about a third of the size of an average PC tower - but it acts as a file server, e-mail server, Web server, firewall, router and Web publisher. The operating system used by the Timonium, Md.-based company is Unix. The product is especially geared toward small business users, but any buyer can purchase the product through one of the "Whistle authorized" list of Internet service providers.
And just last week, there were a slew of new server announcements. On Aug. 18, Sun Microsystems launched a Solaris-based, lower-priced server that is expected to compete against NT systems. The server, which is primarily aimed at work groups, will use software from Lotus and Computer Associates.
On the same day, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and NEC Computer announced new servers to be available in the fall that will all use Intel's Pentium Pro processor. These new servers are geared toward high-speed applications such as database search and retrieval and handling Web site traffic.