You can't have failed to notice that everyone's talking about cloud computing these days. But what exactly is it? Cloud computing simply means storing stuff, or running programs, on computers and servers that are based in remote data centres rather than in your own premises, office, home, etc etc.
In the past, for example, a company might have bought and operated its own email server, web server, shared network file storage, and so on, using its own computers. Cloud computing means renting servers stored elsewhere, which can generally save money. You still get complete access to a computer or server, which you can do with as you wish, but you no longer have physical access to the box.
One of the best-known players in cloud computing is Microsoft, with its Azure product. Azure is a collection of around a million computers, housed in various locations around the world. To set up a new virtual machine, just log into your Azure account, choose the machine size you want, and within 5 minutes you're ready to connect to it remotely via Windows Remote Desktop (which is built into all versions of Windows from XP onwards).
You only pay for your Azure machines when they're actually powered up. A machine with a single processor core and 1.75 GB of RAM will cost you 9 US cents per hour. At the other end of the scale, 16 processors and 112 GB of RAM runs to $4.90 an hour. Disk space is included in the price.
Best of all, if everything goes wrong, just delete your VM and create a new one. It's easier and quicker than trying to fix a problem.
If you fancy trying out Azure, and setting up one or more virtual computers to connect to, signing up at http://azure.microsoft.com will get you $200 of credit to get you started. Be aware, though, that you'll need to give your credit card details. Also, you must remember to shut down your VMs from the special control portal, and not just using the Shut Down feature on the machine itself, otherwise the payment meter will continue running.
With a basic machine coming in at less than $15 a month, even if you leave it running 24/7, a $200 credit will give you ample opportunity to try out the whole new world of cloud computing for yourself. And so long as you remember to cancel your account, or stop using it, when your free credit has expired, it won't cost you a dime.
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