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I’ve spent the last two days at Software 2007, and while enjoying the show and my fellow attendees tremendously, I noticed that there was a phrase (a very common one in the software industry, in fact) that I heard over and over: “Enterprise-Class”

Typically this is a phrase used by software companies to indicate that their software can handle the intense demands of the largest multi-national companies combined with their very large communities of suppliers, partners, customers, etc.

In this context, I was hearing it from SaaS vendors trying to convince the audience that their applications were more than conveniences for small business, but rather ready for prime time and the so-called real business of large enterprises.

Add that to the fact that this conference (as so many are lately) is centered around Enterprise 2.0, and I began to wonder: Does “enterprise-class” matter?

Consider: Enterprise class usually means three things:

  • Scalability: The ability to handle transaction volume, data storage needs, etc for a very large number of simultaneous users and still give good response time and performance.
  • Security: The ability to protect data where it’s stored, in transit (over the network) and at all of the endpoints and nodes with sufficiently high levels of security so that it can’t be stolen. Also the ability to ensure that only people who are authorized to see certain data can get to it at all, plus the ability to provide business continuity in case of disaster. And to do all of this in ways that meet a tangled web of regulatory requirements.
  • Flexibility: The ability to adapt to different contexts, tasks, etc. And the ability to configure both the application functions and the user interface to meet the needs and preferences of every individual user.

Let me compare those requirements to the requirements that might be placed on a successful Web2.0-style consumer application (think Google – search, calendar, reader, whatever) or small-to-mid-size-business applications (say, WebEx meetings or SalesForce.com CRM):

  • Scalability: These applications must scale to enormous numbers of users (sometimes in the millions, rather than the thousands of an enterprise) and data transfer and storage requirements. Moreover, where enterprise applications can be rolled-out in a planned way (and therefore additional demands on the system predicted and defined), SaaS applications must respond to unpredictable demands which can grow very quickly if the application/service becomes popular.
  • Security: SaaS applicaitions may or may not be subject to regulatory requirements, but they are subject to the requirements of the market. They must be able to keep user data and user content secure and be sure access controls are in place and highly effective. For small businesses they must still meet all of the business requirements. But imagine the exodus from the service if consumer data were compromised (see any number of recent examples). In addition, these applications/services do not reside behind firewalls, so they must be built to be hacker-proof in ways that an enterprise application is often immune (mostly) from.
  • Flexibility: These application must not only allow so much flexibility that every user can personalize their experience, but it must be easy enough for users to do it themselves. Small businesses must be able to create the custom restrictions, processes, roles, etc. that meet their unique needs. Not everything needs to be customizable, but most of the experience should be. On top of that, there is an increasing demand for these applications/services to be published as web-services in some form, so that they can be used in more flexible ways.

“Enterprise-class” has become such a loaded and popular buzzword that no marketing department can seem to go without using it. But that’s just getting caught up in the buzzword.

I realized as I considered this comparison that this is another element of the “2.0” shift that is turning the market inside-out in so many ways. And it led me to ask:

Does my enterprise really want an “enterprise-class” application? or a “consumer-class” application?