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by By Bob Walters | October 01, 2010

There's been a lot of talk about "cloud computing" of late. While the precise definition seems to vary somewhat depending on who's doing the talking, in a nutshell it's about using applications that we access  via the Internet, as opposed to running them from our computers' hard drives. The programs themselves -- and our data -- reside on someone else's server, up in "the cloud," from our perspective, accessible to us through an Internet browser.

Applications like Google Apps, Salesforce.com and even parts of Microsoft Office 2010 are responsible for putting more and more of our information in the cloud.  Software as a Service, or SaaS, is the term that's used to describe these applications run from servers. They are available 24/7/365, on demand and from wherever we happen to be, regardless of the device we use to access the Internet -- desktop, laptop, netbook, tablet or smartphone.

What is significant about this change is that we are no longer tethered to the corporate networks or our PCs (or Macs). We are free to roam and connect at will to the data and applications we need to run our businesses, communicate with others and manage our lives. Sales professionals can receive updated order status, inventory and account information while meeting with a customer; meeting planners can connect to the information they need to manage their events and share it instantly with caterers, facilities and management.

Changing Mindset This may sound like merely an extension of the Internet -- we do much of this now via e-mail and browser-based access to our organizations' networks -- but it is more of a dynamic shift than that. Software developers, from Microsoft, Oracle and Apple down to smaller, vertical-application providers of membership, meeting, order processing and accounting services are moving their solutions to the cloud.

The success of Google's efforts in this area, starting with Gmail and now with the ever-expanding range of Google Apps, has proven that people and companies are willing to have their vital information stored somewhere other than their local PCs or corporate servers.

Not only is the data more readily accessible from any location, but real-time sharing of that data is more efficient than ever before. Hotels, airlines, audiovisual companies and more can make their room inventories, last-minute seat availability and equipment inventories available to you, the planner. You can block a group of rooms or rent a projector in real time, without submitting requests only to discover that the rate has changed or the projector was just rented.

Eye to the Sky The next time you upgrade your database management systems or subscribe to an online service, investigate whether these applications are available in an SaaS environment. Often the suppliers will roll the implementation and startup fees into a 12- or 36-month contract that reduces your initial outlay, locks your costs in at a set rate, and lets you offer more features and functionality for a lower price.

The cloud is here to stay. Eventually we'll probably all be working from handheld devices that are as indispensable (and difficult to put down) as basic cell phones have become. These devices might be smartphones, but they might also include the latest tablet gadgets. Devices like the iPad and Kindle are already beating industry projections for sales. With each successive generation, and each new competitive product, such devices will provide access to more of the applications, via the cloud, that you already use everyday -- in addition to a whole lot more.