For decades, engineers have drawn a cloud to depict a network (such as the Internet) whose inner workings were unknown to them. From there, cloud computing evolved as a term to describe free or subscription-based services delivered in real time over the Internet.
Cloud computing can refer to software as a service, such as Salesforce.com for customer relationship management (CRM); to file storage, synchronization, backup, and other utility computing, such as Dropbox; and to infrastructure as a service, including Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud, which delivers customizable computing capacity over the Internet.
For further discussion of what the cloud covers, see "Cloud Computing Explained."
Examples of Cloud Computing Services for Small Business
We queried dozens of small businesses about the cloud services they use, and why they use them. Among the most popular services were these:
• Google Apps ($50 per user per year) and Google Docs (free) are offerings from the Google cloud empire. Google Apps is a business-class version of Google Docs and includes souped-up Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs (for word processing, spreadsheet, presentations and forms) components along with administration capabilities.
With either Google Apps or Google Docs, your data remains in one place no matter where you access it from, according to Brian Armstrong, founder of BuyersVote, a product review site that relies on Google's premium services. Despite Gmail's periodic outages, Armstrong says, Google's cloud tools are "actually more secure on the whole because, although you're trusting your data to an external provider, Google works hard to secure a ton of data; and it's the sort of attention to detail that you probably don't have time or money for in your local IT department."