An Introduction to Cloud Computing

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Q: Microsoft just announced that they're launching a new cloud-based Office product -- Office 365. What exactly is cloud computing?

A: For years now, cloud computing has been hailed as the Next Big Thing. You should probably know more about it.

Back in 2007, Google and IBM launched a large-scale research project centered on cloud computing. In 2008, Yahoo!, Intel and HP announced Open Cirrus, a "global, multi-data center, open source test bed for the advancement of cloud computing research and education." In 2009, more than 100 cloud computing trademarks were filed. In 2010, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer said, "For the cloud, we're all in."

And he meant it.

At a special press event in San Francisco this morning, Kurt DelBane, president of Microsoft's office division, announced Microsoft Office 365, a subscription service that incorporates cloud computing. For a monthly fee, users will be able to access calendars, email and other applications from any device that uses ActiveSync, according to Mashable. A beta edition of the service rolls out to thousands of organizations today and a full launch will hit 40 countries sometime in the next year.

Even Congress is getting on board. Today, Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), briefed several Senate and House committes on how to use the cloud to their advantage.

Good timing. This morning, MarketResearch.com released a new report that predicts the cloud computing market will grow to $25 billion by 2013.

You've heard the term and you probably even use some cloud-based programs. Time to understand a bit more about what it actually means.

Cloud computing is a technology that uses remote servers to host and maintain applications that you can then access through a computer or mobile device. A simple example is Gmail, which only requires you to visit a website to retrieve data. No software is required on your end and your mail is stored on Google's servers. Netflix Instant is another popular example of a basic cloud computing application. Members of the service can visit the site, select a movie and stream it from their home computer without having to download the file. The film is stored on -- and plays off of -- Netflix's remote servers.

The increasing demand for Dropbox, a service that allows uses to store and share files with anybody else who has access to the site, and similar products, has convinced powerful Internet companies that cloud computing is here to stay.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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