In the world of Information Technology acronyms and mysterious terms seem to run rampant.  One of the newer terms to hit the I.T. airwaves is “The Cloud”, a term that makes some of us conjure up memories of summer days looking up at the sky and imagining various faces and images hidden inside those puffy white balls of cotton.  To others it brings to mind a mysterious fog like body of gas where anything entering it never seems to return.  To be honest, when I first heard about “The Cloud” in the I.T. vernacular it took me some time to grasp the overall concept and magnitude of its impact on our current technological society.  In fact, my first thoughts were of sensitive corporate or personal data being lost in “The Cloud” never to be seen again.

So, what is, in fact, “The Cloud”?  Well, technically it is called “cloud computing”.  In the very simplest of terms it is the idea of computing power and storage being maintained off-site, typically by a vendor that specializes in “hosting a cloud” and you, the “client” only lease space or the right to use applications in “The Cloud”.   A cloud can be maintained by a local vendor, a well-known Internet service provider or the most well-known I.T. powerhouses, Microsoft and Apple.  The cloud vendor maintains a huge array of computers and storage and is responsible for maintaining those systems and their backups.  The service is typically delivered via the Internet, although can be delivered through a dedicated, secure connection as well.  You, the client, simply need an inexpensive P.C. or Mac or even mobile device that has access to the Internet, or the dedicated connection, and usually just a browser like Internet Explorer or Safari to access the applications and storage for a monthly or annual fee.  In fact, you have most likely used a primitive form of cloud computing already if you have a Hotmail or Gmail account or even used services in the past like AOL.  Even Facebook is a form of cloud computing as it hosts miniature applications and stores information and photos of you in “The Cloud”.

The benefits to cloud computing are numerous.  A primary benefit is that you no longer have to maintain, and keep up to date, servers and desktop computers along with the myriad of software licenses that go along with them.  You simply sign up for the applications and storage space you need for each user, use your existing P.C. or equivalent, connect to the Internet, and away you go.  The obvious gain is in I.T. infrastructure and human resource cost. You only pay for what you need when you need it.  Software is automatically kept up to date with the latest versions and security patches while you simply pay your periodic fee.

So is there a downside to this?  Well, that depends on your perspective but there are always pros and cons to everything.  The most prevalent downside is the risk of your data being compromised.  This speaks to the need to only use a very trusted and proven vendor.  Of course, if you have an Internet connection, your data is always at risk.  Hackers have automated programs constantly probing the Internet for networks that are unprotected or have holes in their current protection.  Suffice it to say that the major players like Microsoft and Apple will do everything they can to protect their clouds.  Other possible downsides have to do with consistent and speedy Internet connections.  For this reason if cloud computing was a primary strategy for your organization you would most likely want to have a backup Internet provider and make sure you have plenty of bandwidth (speed).

So what now? Well, this article was really designed to give you a brief overview of what “The Cloud” is and how it is used. Where you go from here is a matter of determining risk factors and return on investment for using cloud computing.  Most solutions will still involve a mixture of cloud computing and local computing.  Not every application, at least for now, will be hosted in the cloud.  But the most common applications, like Microsoft Exchange (email) and Office are certainly already there.  In fact, it is rumored from credible sources that Windows 8 will have direct interfaces to Microsoft’s “SkyDrive” storage cloud to such an extent that it will simply appear as a “local” hard drive on your machine from which you can drag and drop files.  If you are interested in cloud computing and don’t know where to turn, we can certainly help get you going in the right direction.  And most probably that direction will involve at least one trip….”To the Cloud”.