You may have heard about "cloud computing" and wonder what it means. The term has nothing to do with those vaporous shapes that drift across the sky.
Cloud computing refers to the next evolution of the Internet. Instead of buying software, installing it on your computer, upgrading it periodically and storing all your data on your hard drive, with cloud computing you use software applications online, as a service. All you need is your computing device and an Internet connection.
Another way to think of it is like the electricity that runs into your home or office. To use it, you just plug into an outlet, whether you want to run a copy machine, a TV set or an espresso maker. Like electricity, which is metered, with cloud computing you just pay for the services you use. But many services are free.How It Works
You may already be using cloud computing without even knowing it. Do you have a Web-based e-mail service like Yahoo!Mail or gMail? The software to compose, send, receive and store all your messages is in the cloud. As a customer, you have reliable access to your e-mail 24/7 and never have to update the software. It's all done behind the scenes. Do you really care where everything is physically located?
Here's another example: Millions of people use Microsoft Word to create documents. An alternative is Google Docs, which gives you some, but not all, of the same features as Word. Google Docs is hosted in the cloud. You access the word processing program through your web browser, just like a website. Once you've created your document, you can print it, save it, revise it at a later date or e-mail a link to the document so others can read it or even edit it online. Instead of the document residing on your hard drive or your company's network, it's stored in the cloud.
Many businesses are moving to cloud computing because it frees the IT department from having to install, maintain and upgrade software on all the company computers. It can also save money, because access to software applications is priced similar to that of a utility--just pay for what you use each month.Advantages
Cloud computing has a lot to recommend it:1.Lower cost computing
Because the software is online, you don't need as powerful a computer to run the application.2.Reduced software cost--no more updates
There's no need to buy and update software. Use the application you need and pay-as-you-go.3.Unlimited storage
All your data is stored online, so you don't have to worry about the capacity of your hard drive.4.Technology is handled behind the scenes
There's no need to deal with technical support to troubleshoot software problems.5.Worldwide access
You can access the applications and your files from anywhere.6.Easier collaboration
Having everything online fosters collaboration.7.Device independent
Whether you use a PC, Mac or smartphone, applications will run and you can open and share files.
Of course, there are drawbacks too:1.Requires an Internet connection
Cloud computing is dependent on having a reliable connection, ideally a broadband connection. Because cloud computing can be data intensive, dial-up connections don't work well.2.Slow speed
Even with a broadband connection, computing can be slow when servers are heavily trafficked.3.Limited features
Online applications may lack some of the features that similar desktop applications offer.4.Security
How secure is your data? Who has access to it? If you have sensitive information, do you really want it online where it may be hacked?5.Lost data
Although storing your data files online means you never have to backup your hard drive, online data can be lost.
There's no doubt that cloud computing is here to stay. Whether you want to dump your desktop apps and head into the sky really depends on your needs. But for many common applications like word processing and spreadsheets, working in the cloud offers a good (and free) alternative to the tyranny of the traditional desktop.
Last update: April 21, 2010