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When children look up at clouds they imagine all kinds of shapes - animals, people or planets. When computer scientists think of clouds, they conjure up something that may look like the data centre of the future.

Cloud computing is essentially a large-scale distributed computing system that taps into the vast resources of the Internet. Individual PCs access the "cloud" of data rather than their own data centre and rent products or services such as extra storage space or applications from companies like Amazon.com or Google.

Some observers believe businesses will eventually run no servers of their own, but merely rent access to a larger vendor's cloud of computer resources.

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Here's what you need to know about this trend and how it might affect your business:

The rationale

"Today, clients build and run extremely complex, underutilized and unsustainable scale-out environments," writes Will Runyon on the data centre blog TheRaisedFloor.typepad.com.

"The need for cloud computing is fuelled by dramatic growth in connected devices, real-time data streams, the adoption of service-oriented architectures and Web 2.0 applications such as search, open collaboration, social networking and mobile commerce."

The potential pitfall

Although vendors talk as though there is only one Internet cloud, each vendor will be running its own set of data centres that customers can use to access Internet-based information and resources, which may complicate matters, notes Bob Warfield on the SmoothSpan.wordpress.com blog.

Companies may want to ask, for example, whether their vendor's cloud covers all the geographies their employees work in.

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"Get ready for a lot of complexity and choice to be injected to the cloud computing picture," he writes.

Don't choose any cloud

Nicholas Carr recently commented on the possibility of "vertical clouds" that offer special resources or services to customers with specific needs.

According to Mr. Carr, vertical clouds would provide "a possible means of addressing issues of information security crucial to industries such as health care and financial services.

"It might provide a regulatory stepping stone between private systems and a shared grid ... vertical offerings would also make sense for industries characterized by highly specialized applications, like retailing," Mr. Carr said.

Clouds don't need fat PCs

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Kevin Kelly, who writes a blog called The Technium, highlights the lightweight eeePC out of Taiwan as the kind of stripped-down desktop that might be accessing computer clouds in the future.

The trend, he suggests, may lead to a much different Internet than the one we experience today.

"Eventually we'll have the intercloud, the cloud of clouds.

"This intercloud will have the dimensions of one machine comprised of all servers and attendant clouds on the planet," he writes.

Say goodbye to banks

You can't be a legitimate business and not work with a major financial institution. Well, not yet, anyway.

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The Ripple Project, a global effort involving open-source software programmers, is trying to take the peer-to-peer services that kids used to swap music files and create a new way of exchanging money or credit between trusted partners.

It's worth looking up before it changes the way we all conduct transactions.

Web 2.0 for neophytes

Many companies still suffer from a generation gap between the senior managers who didn't grow up with the Internet and younger staff who have mastered all the latest online services.

On Levite.wordpress.com, Jon Swanson offers eight tips on how to get across the concept of working over the Web. Here are three of the best:

1. It's like a party line phone where you can listen in to calls that come for other people. 2. Remember how you used to walk down the street and say 'hi' to people along the street? That's what I do when I turn on my computer.

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3. When you were in college, you got to know some people. For the next 40 years, you did a round-robin letter.

You wrote a letter, sent it to the next person, who added hers and forwarded it to the next person, who did the same.

When it made it around to all six people, you took your letter out and wrote a new one. We do that every day.

Shane Schick is editor of ComputerWorld Canada. For more Recommended Links, visit his blog at Globetechnology.com

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