What is the cloud? Well, if you're reading this article, it means you use the Internet, so you're already in the cloud. If you order from Amazon or update a Facebook status, if you bid on eBay, do electronic banking, or enter payroll online, you're already using cloud-based services.
Definitions vary, but the idea behind cloud computing is a greater access to software, computing power, and data storage, achieved at a lower cost by sharing resources, "in the cloud." It's not a new idea. In the 1960's, ARPANET, the very foundation of the Internet, was created to allow remote sharing of University research computers. SaaS (Software as a Service) allows you to use, via the Internet, software that is operated and maintained by the vendors on their hardware, at their location.
Innovation in computing happens so fast now that, by the time we finish paying for computer hardware and software, it's often obsolete. With cloud computing, you can use software without having to buy and install it. You can store data without a server. You can keep track of business travel expenses in real time. You can collaborate with others on a file that sits in one location, instead of being e-mailed back and forth. You access all these services through an internet browser, on a variety of devices.
Cloud services are scalable. There's no need to continually upgrade computer systems as your business grows from 3 employees to 10 to 500. In 13 Terrific Cloud Services for Small Business, PC Magazine lists tools for communication, productivity, accounting, CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and data backup. PCWorld offers tips for small businesses thinking of moving to the cloud. Practical eCommerce has compiled a list of 15 Cloud Storage Sites.
Some services are free; most are subscription-based. Some are free but offer additional services by subscription. Google Apps are free for up to 10 user accounts per organization and include Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Sites and Google Docs. Google Apps for Business, for an unlimited number of users at $5 a month each (or $50 a year,) offers more support and additional Apps, like Google Video for Business. Microsoft's Skydrive and Apple's iCloud are free. Dropbox is free up to 2GB, $9.99/mo. for 50GB and $19.99/mo for 100GB.
How do you keep your data safe in the cloud? Encryption. In "Protecting your data in the cloud," cyber security expert Richard Stiennon is quoted as saying "ALL data should be encrypted ALL the time in the cloud." Phil Lieberman, President and CEO of Lieberman Software says, "Put simply, this means implementing data encryption across any endpoint - desktops, laptops, handheld devices and removable media - and implementing full disk encryption where appropriate. This ensures that any and all data that flows to and from a cloud resource is fully protected."
Interest in cloud computing is growing exponentially. SYS-CON's first Cloud Expo in 2007 drew 450 delegates; over 5,000 will attend the 9th Cloud Expo in Santa Clara, November 2011. 7 Intriguing Cloud Services at Cloud Expo 2011 details some of the offerings at the April 2011 Cloud Expo in New York.
Whatever service you choose, read all the fine print. Know what happens to your data if, for example, you're late paying the bill. Some services will specify that you are responsible for backing up your data. Backing up data in the cloud protects it from being destroyed in an office fire or flood, but backup on disk or tape protects your data from a cloud service going bankrupt.