You're almost certain to have heard about cloud computing and you might know all about it already, but if not then you might like to read our handy primer on the subject.

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What is it?
Although it sounds a bit mysterious and perhaps vaguely sinister to some, there's essentially nothing new about "the cloud" itself - it's basically just another word for the internet.

The name is actually derived from the cloud diagrams used to depict the internet in schematic drawings, but is also effective as a metaphor for the way this kind of computing activity works.

How does it work?
The basic elements of cloud computing are that the software or data involved is stored on the internet - or in other words on the owner's server - and accessed via an internet connection by its users.

In contrast, traditional computing methods have seen the software or data stored on the user's machine. The increasing popularity of cloud-based computing has been made possible by widespread, reliable broadband connections - which are only likely to improve in speed and stability in future.

What is it used for in the office?
The applications for cloud computing are almost as broad as for computer use in general - and straddle home and business use.

Software tools can be stored centrally and logged into by remote users, as can databases and even operating systems - this can enable the user to have a much lower-spec machine than might otherwise be necessary.

It also makes the management of individual users' PCs and software rights much easier, removing the need to install suites of programmes and to validate licences on individual machines. That can all be managed remotely by IT staff.

And what about personal use?
There is also a burgeoning cloud-based sector in the entertainment industry - with Apple's iCloud and Google Music probably the best-known services. Not to mention the (mostly) free music-streaming service Spotify.

Movies and games are also offered through "the cloud" - and it is likely that in future far fewer people will physically "own" media products like movies and music, instead either buying access to specific items via the cloud or paying for a subscription to numerous songs/movies/games.

Is it really something new?
No, not really. If you use the aforementioned Spotify or even a web-based email service then you have been using "the cloud" for years.

The main change is that, as we alluded to before, the client computer no longer has to do all the processing - that can be handled by the host computer system - and the end user's machine just has to be able to run the interface software.

So there you go, clear as a cloud.

What do you reckon? Are you ready to go cloud-based? Comment below...