In the simplest terms, ‘cloud computing’ means storing and accessing data and programs over the Internet instead of on and from your computer’s hard drive. ‘The cloud’ is just a metaphor for the Internet. There is no real, puffy white cloud involved; it’s just a 3rd party service provider’s server, somewhere.

When you store data on or run programs from your computer’s hard drive, that’s called local storage and computing. Everything you need is physically close to you, which means accessing your data is fast and easy (for that one computer, or others on the local network). Working off your hard drive is how the computer industry functioned for decades and some argue it’s still superior to cloud computing.

The cloud though, is not about the hard drive in your desktop computer or hard drive server in residence.

To use the cloud you need to access your data or your programs over the Internet or at least have that data synchronised with other information over the Internet. With an online connection cloud computing can be done anywhere and at anytime on smartphones, pads or tablets as well as desktop computers.

The serious business, and where the money is, is in the cloud-based software programs. These include ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) where businesses can subscribe to an application over the Internet (examples: Adobe Creative Cloud, There’s also ‘Platform as a Service’ (PaaS) where business can create its own custom applications for use by all in the company. And of course the major players who offer ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ (IaaS) where companies like Google and Amazon provide the backbone that can be rented out by other companies as a platform for their services; Netflix being one, a customer of Amazon cloud services and due to launch in Australia in March this year.

Cloud computing is big business. Global management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company claims that 80% of the largest companies in North America that it surveyed are either looking at using cloud services – or already are.

The cloud in its many forms is an exciting development but it also creates new types of challenges in protecting sensitive information assets. A business-focused risk-management approach enables companies to strike the right balance between protecting data and taking advantage of more efficient and flexible technology environments.