Cloud computing is one of the fastest-rising technologies on the Web today. There are a number of large businesses and corporations who have already adopted the “cloud” to replace their existing computing platforms – and small businesses aren’t far behind.

What is cloud computing and what can it do for you?

Simply put, cloud computing is a set of computing resources delivered online. It’s also an emerging model for delivering information technology services, one that offers scalable and virtual resources. (Geek speak alert! Don’t worry; we’ll break it down for you.) The term “cloud” is used as a metaphor for the Internet, which basically serves as a hosting environment for applications like E-mail, productivity, file backup and storage, and more.
Previously, all the data and applications of a user were stored and hosted by a hard drive on a computer or a set of servers at the IT department; with cloud computing, there isn’t going to be any need for that hard drive or for those servers. Everything is in the cloud – stored, shared, or managed with “anywhere, anytime” availability.
Cloud computing services and apps are gaining popularity thanks to these benefits:

  • Cost-effectiveness: Sure, a number of cloud services charge a fee for premium membership, but these costs are much lower than when you actually have to deploy IT infrastructure like file and E-mail servers, storage systems, security software, and backup applications.
  • Scalability: Experiencing huge traffic spikes? Increasingly intensive data sets? Let cloud computing applications solve these for you by scaling to a few more servers – or, if needed, maybe thousands more.
  • Better access, security, and collaboration: Data in the cloud is so much easier to access, store, backup, share, and manage, thanks to the fact that all the information is online. Your organization won’t need those storage disks or USBs; all you need is a Web browser.
  • Lesser need for IT staff: Small businesses don’t always have the manpower to handle IT. By “handle” we mean things like backing up the data on the servers, recovering documents inadvertently deleted from the computer, securing files and E-mails, enabling collaboration, or even just setting up the company’s whole IT infrastructure. With cloud computing, there’s no need for any of that.

Make no mistake: cloud-based services and apps are here to stay.
It is in this light that Lakeshore Branding presents a list of today’s best cloud computing services and apps for small businesses.

Google Docs: We’re sure you’ve at least heard of – if not used – the search giant’s productivity suite. As a browser-based cloud computing service for creating, editing, sharing, and collaborating (real-time) on documents, Google Docs delivers the essentials: compatibility with word documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings, and forms; great ease of use; instant access from any Web-enabled device (desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablet PCs, etc.). Best of all, it’s free. All you need is your Google account.

Windows Live SkyDrive: This is a cloud-based “hard” drive with online storage capability of up to 25 GB. (When you sign up, you get free 5 GB.) Unlike Google Docs, SkyDrive focuses on both productivity and storage. So apart from being able to store, access, edit, and share all kinds of documents (you don’t even have to have MS Office installed on your computer to manage your Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote files), you can also manage your photo and video files via the cloud. SkyDrive also lets you share with other people, groups, and networks, or keep them completely private and password-protected.

Dropbox: Like what you would expect from a virtual filing cabinet, Dropbox lets you sync, store, and share your files and folders anywhere – from whatever computing device you’re using. You get started by registering for free (with 2 gigabytes of storage) and installing the app on each computer you’re using: laptop, desktop, office computer, mobile device, what-have-you. Dropbox then creates a folder for placing files – or more folders, containing files – that you can access or manage from anywhere, with drag-and-drop ease. Whenever you make changes to these files and folders, Dropbox automatically updates them (in a matter of seconds), so that wherever you are, as long as you have access to the Internet, you’re carrying your files with you. Even if you lose – knock on wood – your iPhone in a cab or break your laptop, you’ll still be able to retrieve those files using any other computer, via your Dropbox account or folder.
(For more information, check out our recent Dropbox review.)

Box.Net: Box.Net features secure online file sharing and actually works a lot like Dropbox. Here, you can share your documents with a link or as a shared folder. The great thing about this cloud service, though, is that it can easily be integrated with other applications, such as Access Box, Sales Force, and Google Apps. It also has a full-featured collaboration tool, with an online project management workspace that lets you share project files, manage versions, add comments, and assign new tasks.

RackSpace: As a cloud storage and backup solution, RackSpace’s service includes cloud servers and files. For a minimal fee, you can get unlimited, on-demand secure online storage, with easy access via the service’s file manager or API. You can also get Linux or Windows cloud servers in a matter of minutes – servers that can be dynamically scaled at a moment’s notice. No long-term contracts; you only pay for what you use.

Egnyte: Egnyte has a popular Hybrid Cloud Solution that lets you store and backup files in a cloud server, but it offers other useful cloud computing features such as file servers, FTP servers, online hard drives, solutions for mobile access and sharing, cloud-based apps for sales teams, large companies, and small businesses. All membership accounts (free or premium) also feature a personal local cloud, which gives you instant offline access to files as well as updates local copies of your files on your computer.

Amazon Web Services: This suite of cloud computing services by Amazon can meet the needs of any business, regardless of size, from large enterprises to SMBs. There are services for computing, storage, bandwidth, content delivery, database, e-Commerce, messaging, monitoring, networking, payments, and billing, storage, web traffic, and workforce. Of course, having Amazon as your cloud computing provider should also add to the reassurance that few things – if any at all – would crash and be lost in the cloud.

Outright: Having trouble or spending too many resources on keeping your financial records? You can now take accounting to the cloud with Outright, a free cloud-based finance and accounting platform that tracks your income and expenses, reduce tax liability concerns, and monitor up-to-the-minute profits and losses. Because everything is done online, you’ll no longer need to hire a record keeper to organize the financial side of your business.

Evernote: Cloud computing isn’t just for creating, storing, and syncing documents. It’s also for remembering pretty much everything. With a cloud computing application like Evernote (a personal favorite) – which is available for Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile – you have your own notebook in the cloud. Save your ideas, notes, audio, things you like, things you see on the Web, and even things you see and capture using your phone camera. Two other standout features of Evernote are: the ability to search by title, tag, and printed/handwritten text; and the ability to share whatever notes you have to other people, including non-Evernote users.

SalesForce: Sales Force is one of the best cloud computing services for CRM (customer relationship management) right now, and it comes with applications like Sales Cloud, Service Cloud, and to help you do more selling – and less administration. The Sales Cloud is like a complete dashboard to help your sales reps, managers, and execs close more deals; the Service Cloud, meanwhile, is a platform that streamlines all your customer service efforts; while is an easy-to-use programming model for storing databases, information about your customers, business processes, content library, and even analytics.

Basecamp: Today’s leading online project management and collaboration tool (even Lakeshore Branding uses it!), Basecamp allows people talk to each other, discuss issues openly, and communicate clearly – all via the cloud. The service also lets you upload and share files, manage versions of these files, deliver on-time, complete assignments, use templates, and monitor the latest activity across all your projects.
Did we miss anything? Let us know your favorite cloud computing service or app by leaving a comment below. Who knows? Maybe we, too, will give it a try.