There are many different definitions of what the enterprise cloud really means and how it benefits an enterprise. In fact, what makes up an enterprise cloud can be as disparate and varied as enterprises themselves. Not to mention the fact that many service providers and vendors tend to distort their own definitions of the enterprise cloud to encompass the services they provide. Here we'll take a look at enterprise cloud computing and try to nail down a definition.

Cloud Computing in the Enterprise

First, let's take a look at cloud computing. The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology has come up with what is probably the best definition of cloud computing, which is a model that enables convenient, ubiquitous and on-demand network access to a collective pool of computing resources. That pool is configurable, including servers, storage, networks, services and applications. These resources may be released and appropriated with minimal service provider interaction or management effort.

So, in effect, cloud computing allows an enterprise to access IT resources easily, anywhere and anytime with minimal need for supervision or oversight. Enterprise cloud is a way of deploying cloud computing for businesses, and allowing them to take advantage of the cost savings and other benefits of cloud computing. (For some background reading, check out Cloud Computing: Why the Buzz?)

What Enterprise Cloud Computing Can Do

Enterprise cloud computing allows a business to benefit from cloud computing while appealing to the specific needs of an enterprise, such as cost reduction, efficiency and collaboration. Its key benefits include:

  • It helps companies to cut down on costs by reducing the need for hardware as well as tying costs directly to services used.
  • Because there is no need for upfront investment, business owners can be emboldened to try out new ideas and see what works for them. Unlike hardware-based solutions, cloud setups are also easy to switch to a new provider or shut down entirely.
  • Cloud computing can help companies collaborate with suppliers, trading partners, knowledge partners and other affiliated businesses, as well as help employees work together more effectively and efficiently.

What Are the Types of Cloud Computing Businesses Can Use?

Cloud computing can be classified in two ways. The first involves the location of the cloud computing infrastructure, such as:

  • Public Cloud Computing
    This is when resources such as storage and applications are provided to the general public for a fee or for free. Enterprises are generally powerless, in terms of controlling where the behind-the-scenes infrastructure is hosted, and they usually share the infrastructure with other businesses. Examples of public cloud services include Google Docs, Dropbox, IBM's Blue Cloud and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud.

  • Private Cloud Computing
    Private cloud computing is when a business has a dedicated computing structure for its exclusive use. It may be hosted on-site or with a third party. Similarly, it may be managed by the organization itself or another organization. Private cloud computing is generally much more expensive than public cloud computing but it is also more secure.

  • Hybrid Cloud Computing
    Because of the tradeoff between cost and security, many organizations are moving toward hybrid cloud computing services. This is when enterprises use both private and public clouds. Usually, applications that are critical to operations or that contain sensitive data are run on a private cloud, while less important processes and services are on the public cloud.

  • Community Cloud Computing
    There is a fourth type of cloud computing, community cloud computing, where the computing infrastructure is shared between two enterprises or institutions that belong to the same community. For example, universities often share computing infrastructure with a nearby school..
Another way to classify cloud computing is by services provided. In this sense, there are three main types:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
    IaaS offers hardware-related services on the cloud. This includes storage services or the provision of virtual servers similar to those provided by Flexiscale, Amazon and Rackspace Cloud Servers.

  • Platform as a Service (PaaS)
    PaaS provides a solution stack and computing platform for the enterprise. Basically, the enterprise creates software using the service provider's libraries or tools. The provider is also responsible for the network, storage and servers.

  • Software as a Service
    SaaS providers offer complete software solutions on the cloud. These services include things like online customer relationship management software, or even Web mail.

Concerns and Challenges for the Enterprise Cloud

Just imagine having your website down for an hour or longer, or perhaps not being able to do any work for an extended period. These are problems that can plague cloud-operated systems. It isn't that this doesn't happen in other systems too, but the problem can be magnified for companies that rely on cloud services; it may be magnified even more when many large companies rely on the same cloud service provider. Just like an technology solution, cloud computing isn't without its drawbacks. Here are the key challenges:

  • Cost
    While reducing costs is one of the most attractive features of enterprise cloud computing, finding the right balance between services and cost is a prime concern. As you can imagine, a company needs to give up a degree of control over IT resources to get the most cost-effective cloud services. This is clearly illustrated when opting for a private cloud.

  • Security
    By putting data, information and other sensitive material out on the cloud, companies essentially lose a bit of control over them. As such, companies need to know how to maintain data security. In public or hybrid clouds, this is compounded by the fact that the data is being hosted on the same servers as data from other companies. That means that even if a hacking attack is targeted at one company, it could affect all the companies hosted on the same server. This makes the security record of a potential enterprise cloud provider essential. Does the company have the latest security applications, data loss prevention measures and encrypted file systems? Does it have better security software and hardware in place than other providers? (Read more about some of the cloud's security problems in The Dark Side of the Cloud.)

  • The Lock-In Period
    Cloud providers often require a lock-in period to help them recoup their costs, but this also prevents clients being able to transfer to a better or more cost-effective provider if one becomes available. In a sense, a company can become married to the provider it chooses. For example, it may be less expensive to purchase add-ons to for the platform already being used (from the same provider) than to find another service provider to fulfill the company's operational requirements.

  • Budget
    Remember that enterprise cloud allows companies to access the services they need when they need them. However, that also means that it can be very difficult to pinpoint exactly what quantities will be required and how much they will cost. This makes it very difficult to set a budget - and stick to it.

  • Continuity
    Finally, what happens when a cloud service provider is acquired by another company, or suffers an attack? Again, because information out of the cloud is somewhat out of a company's control, the company may also have less control over what happens to it in extraordinary circumstances.
Enterprise cloud computing brings a lot of advantages to a business, but as with any business decision, a lot of research and planning is required to make it work well. The first step is understanding what the cloud has to offer and comparing it against a company's operational needs.