You hear about it all the time, but what the heck is "the cloud" anyway?
Do you have a Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Hotmail account? Chances are you do. When you check your email on any of these services, you are accessing the cloud.
Have you ever done a Google search for something? Chances are you have. When you run an internet search you are accessing the cloud.
Have you used Facebook? Many people attach photos or videos to their Facebook postings. The photo you are seeing isn't physically located on their home computer anymore. They have "uploaded" (i.e. sent) the photo to Facebook's computers, which could be located anywhere in the world. When you open Facebook on your device and look at that picture, it is being "served" to you from a computer in "the cloud".
Are you getting the idea? In its most basic form, the cloud and the internet are the same thing, so let's make sure we understand what the internet is.
Before the internet, a PC was useful, but lonely. It could only talk to itself. You could do things like edit photos, type letters, and balance your checkbook, but that was about it.
Let's say I'm your neighbor across the street, and I have a computer too, and we figured out a way to connect our two machines so that we could share those photos between us, and even send messages back and forth. We've just established a "network" which is all the internet really is. A really, really BIG network, to be sure, connecting millions of computers. But the concept is the same. Computers talking to one another, not just themselves. The cloud was beginning to form!
"Cloud computing" means using others people's computers to help you do things, like checking Gmail or Facebook. Here's another real world example. Most of us have things on our devices we don't want to lose. Usually photos, but they can include important documents, tax records, recipes, or whatever. Yet most of us are terrible at backing things up to protect us in case of a data calamity down the road. How can the cloud help with this problem?
Services like Mozy and Carbonite have created a booming industry by selling you storage space for your stuff in the cloud. In other words, you pay them to back up and store all your files to their computers. They will keep them safe for you. After all, even if you DO back up your files, perhaps to an external hard drive or something, what good is that if your house burns down? The cloud to the rescue! Because your files are now on a different computer, somewhere else in the world, they are safe from a local disaster, like a house fire. Once you rebuild your house and buy a new computer, you simply retrieve all your stuff from Mozy or Carbonite and you are back in business.
Having your stuff is in the cloud has another advantage -- it's accessible from any internet-connect device anywhere in the world. That's why you can check your Hotmail while on vacation in Florida, and why your friends back in Iowa can instantly see the photos you share online.
Here's a 45-second animation I made to sum things up. See you in the cloud!