Enterprise is many things; it's another way to refer to a business, the name of Captain Kirk’s starship and a term for a certain class of business software and hardware solutions. This final kind of enterprise computing has been around nearly as long as Captain Kirk himself, but is gaining popularity again. Find out what it is – and why it matters.

What Is Enterprise Computing?

Enterprise computing is a catch-all category for software and hardware that is designed to meet the needs of large organizations. These needs aren’t written in stone, but they generally include:

  • A high level of reliability, including built-in redundancies to ensure that a business can continue to operate if one system fails.
  • A high level of security, including robust database security and the ability to set varied access profiles for specific users.
  • A central data storage system that collects and organizes data from the entire organization and controls access to the data according to security protocols.
  • The ability to add and customize applications as needed, giving them the necessary access to data in a relatively painless way.
  • A high level of availability so that users are not waiting to access IT assets.

None of these is an unreasonable expectation, although many people assume that an all-in-one solution will be too expensive. Software and platforms with these capabilities have been around for much longer than most people realize – full enterprise packages and client-server enterprise services were around in the 1980s – and, yes, they have generally been quite expensive.

The New Face of Enterprise Computing

One reason that enterprise computing is generating a lot of buzz again is that the price of these systems has started coming down, while their capabilities have been increasing. Many of the early enterprise solutions were specific to one part of a business. For example, a company might use an enterprise solution like PeopleSoft to handle its human resources. Another enterprise solution would then be used for accounting. Although these programs may have shared the same servers, they didn’t work together seamlessly.

Nowadays, enterprise computing involves building a hardware infrastructure and a platform that all applications can be plugged into. There are still compatibility issues – especially if customized legacy systems are part of the deal – but the eventual level of integration tends to be greater. This is partly due to the fact that the developers building enterprise platforms have gotten better and partly because all software has become much more standardized in how it operates and what data formats it can accept and produce as outputs.

The Cloud Connection

Cloud computing can take some of the credit as the success of public cloud has made companies more interested in either using cloud providers or building private clouds that can be accessed by authorized users from anywhere. In this sense, cloud computing and enterprise computing work well together. If temporary spikes in activity can be met by accessing a public or private cloud, then the availability of IT assets will be much higher. (Learn about some of the drawbacks to cloud computing in The Dark Side of the Cloud.)

Moreover, the cloud has never stopped being a method for distributing enterprise-class solutions via the client-server method. In fact, the enterprise solutions offered by cloud providers have an added edge in that much of the IT support and updating is handled by the provider, saving an organization some IT dollars. That said, entirely cloud-based enterprise solutions are still viewed with skepticism when it comes to security.

Security aside, the cloud-based enterprise solutions are much more affordable than purchasing an enterprise hardware and software infrastructure, which means that even small businesses can access enterprise-class software. This alternative form of enterprise computing allows small businesses to use powerful software as well as huge amounts of storage and processing power on an as-needed basis. (To learn more, read A Beginner's Guide to the Cloud: What It Means for Small Business.)

Two Paths to Enterprise Computing

There are now two types of enterprise computing. The traditional one involves a large organization making a large investment in an enterprise computing platform. This platform standardizes the IT infrastructure, centralizing the data in a secure place and making the right assets available to authorized users, regardless of location.

Traditional enterprise computing gets rid of any division or branch IT quirks like one division keeping data on a server that can’t be backed up or accessed from another location. It also automates many best practices in IT management, such as regular data audits, backups and vulnerability tests. The standardized architecture makes it very easy to add capacity to the system – it can be as simple as adding another drive to a blade server that the system automatically adds to the existing assets. Traditional enterprise computing is not cheap, but it is very robust and secure.

The other type of enterprise computing is made possible by the ongoing investment in web-based technologies. Cloud-based enterprise computing might not meet the standards of all large organizations, but they are certainly pleasing some of them – not to mention many smaller businesses. The hardware requirements are much lower (as are the costs). There are sacrifices to be made as far as the capabilities of some of the applications, the data management and (possibly) security, but these things are likely to improve as more people turn to the cloud for enterprise computing. That said, the traditional method of enterprise computing still has an edge that probably justifies the cost for certain organizations.

Big and Beautiful

No matter which type of enterprise computing an organization goes with, the beauty of integrated systems quickly becomes apparent. In fact, many regular consumers are getting used to enterprise computing as they store their files in the cloud and use web-based applications like Google Apps to create shared calendars and collaborate on documents. It is possible that there will be no enterprise computing in the future because all the applications out there will be enterprise class.