You’ve probably already heard some talk about cloud computing. Right now, there’s quite a bit of buzz about cloud computing being the wave of the future. Chances are, you might already be utilizing it without really knowing what it is. Put simply, cloud computing simply means that your data is stored online, rather than on an individual server or PC, and is accessible via multiple devices.

If you use an email application like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, or utilize Google Docs, then you are already using cloud computing, at least on a small scale.  I’ve recently increased my use of the cloud system by using DropBox to store my documents. This application syncs everything I put in the “box” between various devices; I don’t have to move documents manually or email them to myself as I move back and forth between my laptop, desktop and mobile phone. This type of application also allows me to store photos, video and music, and share them with others with a click of the mouse.

At this point, the question probably isn’t if cloud computing will be in our future, but to what extent it will be significant? Right now, one of the biggest concerns – perhaps slowing down the growth of the cloud, is privacy concerns. In theory, users will be able to determine how much of their personal information in the cloud will be public and how much will be private. In practice, the experience many users have had with Facebook’s rapidly shifting and confusing privacy standards make all of this a bit less straightforward. Users will have to be assured that their private information, especially financial information, will be completely safe and not constantly subject to the vagaries of the host application.

Business has already embraced cloud computing to a great extent. It’s a boon for smaller businesses that can’t afford or don’t require their very own server. They can simply store everything online for a fee based on the amount of space they use. It’s also a good solution for companies who have employees out on the road or working from home, as is increasingly common. With good security procedures in place, employees can access their work and all kinds of data from multiple locations and devices. It also means that businesses no longer have to purchase and manage huge, expensive software applications like CRM (Customer Relationship Management) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). They can access these functions online and use only the parts that apply to their business.

The idea is that the cloud will eventually understand what you are doing and what you want and will be able to predict your behavior. It can then offer you information, products and applications that are tailor-made for you. Some may see this as sinister, but most likely even more will see it as a convenience. The implications for data mining and sale of this information are far-reaching, and a lot remains to be sorted out before cloud computing will be as wide-spread as many hope. At the fast rate it is progressing though, it will become increasingly influential, if not completely ubiquitous.