Once a mere tech buzzword several years ago, the "cloud" has risen in popularity, to the point of becoming a household term. While many have heard of it, few understand what it is, despite its potential to revolutionize the fields of IT and computing. Most, if not all, web users encounter it every day, knowingly or not, so what exactly is this ubiquitous cloud?

Basically, it is a space with virtually unlimited storage that does not exist on a user's hard drive; the Internet itself could be considered a form of the cloud. Companies that provide cloud computing services such as file storage do not use any software that occupies space on a client's hard drive. This is made possible because the cloud is where the software and storage for user accounts exists.

Web-based e-mail providers such as Gmail and Hotmail, for example, do not require an e-mail program to be run on a computer. Users must log in to their accounts through the Internet in order to view and compose e-mails, since the files are not stored on their computer but on the provider's network of computers.

The technological concept behind cloud computing systems is not a complex one. Every system is composed of the front end, or what the user sees, and the back end, which is the cloud section. Via a network such as the Internet, the two ends connect to one another for proper system functioning.     

The front end consists of the user's computer or computer network, as well as the interface software needed for accessing the system. This software is usually an existing web browser, but some companies develop their own applications. The back end is comprised of a provider's computers, servers, and data storage systems, which form a sort of cloud, hence the name for this method of computing.

To ensure that all components operate efficiently, a central server manages the system by monitoring user demands and traffic. The server runs on a certain type of software known as middleware that enables communication between all the networked computers. These remote computers are responsible for doing the bulk of the processing work, instead of the local computer or computer network of the user.

The networked computers in the back end must also copy all user data received. Cloud computing systems store data on digital storage devices, but to accommodate the large number of clients that companies maintain, at least twice the minimum number of storage devices are needed because these devices occasionally break down. In that event, the central server can access backup devices to retrieve the copies of user data, which would otherwise be lost. 

The design of the cloud computing system is well-suited for use in a business setting. Gone are the days when a suite of software had to be installed on every employee's computer. With the services of a cloud computing company in place, an employee only has to log into one Web-based application that hosts all the programs he or she needs on the job.                

The financial benefits of a business solution in the cloud are threefold. Using only one application instead of purchasing multiple software licenses presents a significant amount of savings, especially to large corporations with many system users. Less people can do more work in the cloud, and less personnel training is necessary since there is little to no learning curve for web applications.

Because the back end of a cloud computing system is responsible for the majority of the processing, there is a reduced need for advanced hardware on the front end. Thus, businesses operating in the cloud have decreased hardware costs. The cloud alleviates the need to purchase the fastest computers with the largest memories for each employee.

Streamlining hardware not only cuts overall IT costs, but also increases the amount of available space in offices. The fewer the pieces of hardware, the less clutter, and businesses do not have to rent physical space off-site to store their servers and digital storage devices. By storing their data on a cloud computing company’s hardware, businesses lessen the need for physical space on site.

Many cloud computing services offer metered or pay-as-you-go fees, while some have a one-time set-up fee. These payment methods are generally much cheaper than continually buying new software licenses. They also increase efficiency, because they make the cloud scalable. If a company needs to access more resources, it can quickly scale up in the cloud. If it has to downscale by reducing resources, this can just as easily be done.

Another pro of using the cloud is that all data is backed up on remote computers. If the hard drive of an employee's computer crashes, there are no worries about lost files, since everything can be retrieved from a computer in the cloud. Additionally, the files in the cloud can be accessed from anywhere, so long as there is an Internet connection, because the data is not restricted to a single hard drive on one employee’s computer or in a company network.

Benefits aside, concerns over privacy and security in the cloud might cause businesses to be wary of procuring cloud computing services. Important data does have to be handed over to another company, which means securing it is out of a business’s control. Potential issues with the cloud, however, are already being solved by computing companies.

Cloud computing companies thrive off of their reputation, so they take every client's needs into serious consideration. It is in a company's best interests to have advanced security measures in place to protect client data. The most reliable cloud computing companies encrypt data, which makes any hacks more difficult.

Due to the nature of accessing data and applications remotely, a user logging in from anywhere could have their privacy compromised. Protecting client privacy in the cloud is done using various techniques and formats. Some companies use authentication, in which clients create user names and passwords to access data and information. Other companies use authorization, in which each user only has access to the data and applications pertinent to his or her job.

Regardless of the potential security and privacy issues, it is necessary for any business operating in the cloud to have a strong, dependable Internet connection. Since the majority of cloud computing systems connect the front end and back end through the Internet, data can only be accessed when the Internet can be opened. If the Internet is temporarily down, so is access to data and applications.

The advantages of cloud computing certainly outweigh the minor risks associated with it. With the capacity to change industries beyond IT and computing, it is being used by more and more businesses, and the trend will only continue to grow in the future. The cloud’s overall convenience in cost and ease of use supersedes all other available business solutions on the market today, truly an investment that will keep on giving.