­Let's say you're an executive at a large corporation. Your particular responsibilities include making sure that all of your employees have the right hardware and software they need to do their jobs. Buying computers for everyone isn't enough -- you also have to purchase software or software licenses to give employees the tools they require. Whenever you have a new hire, you have to buy more software or make sure your current software license allows another user. It's so stressful that you find it difficult to go to sleep on your huge pile of money every night.

Soon, there may be an alternative for executives like you. Instead of installing a suite of software for each computer, you'd only have to load one application. That application would allow workers to log into a Web-based service which hosts all the programs the user would need for his or her job. Remote machines owned by another company would run everything from e-mail to word processing to complex data analysis programs. It's called cloud computing, and it could change the entire computer industry.

In a cloud computing system, there's a significant workload shift. Local computers no longer have to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to running applications. The network of computers that make up the cloud handles them instead. Hardware and software demands on the user's side decrease. The only thing the user's computer needs to be able to run is the cloud computing system's interface software, which can be as simple as a Web browser, and the cloud's network takes care of the rest.

There's a good chance you've already used some form of cloud computing. If you have an e-mail account with a Web-based e-mail service like Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail or Gmail, then you've had some experience with cloud computing. Instead of running an e-mail program on your computer, you log in to a Web e-mail account remotely. The software and storage for your account doesn't exist on your computer -- it's on the service's computer cloud.

What makes up a cloud computing system? Find out in the next section.