The terms "cloud computing" and "working in the cloud" refer to performing computer tasks using services delivered entirely over the Internet. Cloud computing is a movement away from applications needing to be installed on an individual's computer towards the applications being hosted online. (The "cloud" refers to the Internet and was inspired by technical flow charts and diagrams, which tend to use a cloud symbol to represent the Internet.)
Examples of Cloud Computing Services
Web-based email services like Gmail and Hotmail deliver a cloud computing service: users can access their email "in the cloud" from any computer with a browser and Internet connection, regardless of what kind of hardware is on that particular computer. The emails are hosted on Google's and Microsoft's servers, rather than being stored locally on the client computer.
Over the last few years we've seen tremendous growth in cloud computing, as witnessed by the many popular Web apps used today, including: VoIP (e.g., Skype, Google Voice), social applications (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), media services (e.g., Picassa, YouTube, Flickr), content distribution (e.g., BitTorrent), financial apps (e.g., Mint), and many more. Even traditional desktop software, such as Microsoft Office, has moved in part to the Web, starting with its Office 2010 Web Apps.
Types of Cloud Computing
The applications mentioned above refer to software solutions provided over the Internet, or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). Other cloud computing services include virtual server storage (Infrastructure-as-a-Service or IaaS), such as Amazon Web Services, and software and product development tools (Platform-as-a-Service or PaaS), such as Google Apps.
Cloud Computing Benefits
Cloud services free businesses and consumers from having to invest in hardware or install software on their devices. They reduce maintenance and hardware upgrading needs; because the solutions are all Web-based, even older computers can be used to access cloud services.
For mobile workers especially, cloud computing provides incredible flexibility: professionals can work from any computing device anywhere as long as they have access to the Web. It also makes collaboration easier, since distributed teams (or a combination of mobile workers and in-office staff) can work on shared information stored centrally in the cloud via, for example, online groupware applications.
Considerations for Working in the Cloud
There are also some issues or obstacles to cloud computing. An Internet connection is obviously necessary to take full advantage of a cloud service. When you're offline--or if there are any disruptions with the cloud service itself--the data may not be accessible at all. (Some cloud apps, like Gmail, have offline capability; others, like Mint, require an Internet connection. The notetaking application, Evernote, offers a good in-between or hybrid solution, with both desktop/phone software and an online service that syncs your notes to the cloud.)
Another issue with cloud computing besides availability is security. Individuals and companies may not be comfortable storing information--especially proprietary or sensitive data--on someone else's server on the Internet.
The issues of trust and reliability will be critical for cloud services to resolve before everyone truly moves to the cloud. Assurances of encryption technologies, privacy protection, and solutions for offline accessibility should go far towards that end. For now, cloud computing's greatest beneficiaries may be remote workers, as Web-based apps empower us to be truly mobile and still accomplish our work.