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Most people use cloud computing on a daily basis without realizing it. Typing a query into Google via a home PC sends your words to a Google data center, which finds the results and promptly returns them to you, no matter where on the planet you're located.

QuickBooks Online, Facebook, Twitter – it’s all in the cloud.

"The cloud," as it’s known colloquially, also holds numerous advantages for industries, including horticulture, says Greg Lafferty, senior account executive at Practical Software Solutions.

Practical Software Solutions, has been plugging green-industry businesses into the cloud since 2006. Lafferty points to remote access capabilities, data storage and loss prevention as major benefits of cloud computing technology.

What exactly is the cloud? Cloud computing is hardware and software provided as a service by another company and accessed over the internet. For example, creating a spreadsheet on a web-based Google Document uses software running on a PC at a Google data center, as opposed to a Microsoft Word document that's only reachable via your home or office computer.

"The cloud is up all the time, and you don't have to hold [computer] hardware on-site," says Lafferty. "You could use a phone, iPad or desktop PC, but you're not going to need a server room or any kind of sophisticated networking hardware. Your data is stored in a server farm somewhere."

Big providers like Microsoft have data centers all over the world, so you don’t know if your data is in San Francisco or Beijing, he says.

Small businesses, including growers, use the cloud for all levels of their business, Lafferty says. Google Mail or Office 365 webmail are some of the more rudimentary applications available. Cloud-based infrastructure, such as replacing a phone system with voiceover IP, represents the next rung up the cloud computing ladder. Growers large and small can also put their entire business systems in the cloud.

“Every business has its own set of goals, and the cloud allows small businesses to take advantage of applications that may have only been available to large businesses in the past,” Lafferty explains. “Cloud-based applications also have the advantage of quickness and ease of access.”

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Some of the more significant uses of cloud-based applications for growers include replenishment and forecasting systems, as well as truck routing and logistics planning, and timekeeping and payrolls systems, he says.

The ability to retrieve information from practically anywhere is particularly advantageous to green industry firms with more than one location. Deploying new applications across a system is easy and straightforward, requiring no testing or installation.

For any of this to work, your location must have reliable internet access. And users should consider a backup internet provider if your primary source goes down.

“It’s an extra cost, but if you can’t ship or send an invoice because your internet is down, that’s a problem,” he says.

Disaster recovery and data preservation are the primary benefits of this 24/7 accessibility, he adds.

"If your data is on a server in Miami (during a hurricane), that's a bad place to be," Lafferty says. "But Amazon's web services have data centers around the world allowing you to access your information."

Other advantages include the ability to access technology and tools without having to purchase as much infrastructure and hardware.

“Generally, growers would rather put capital funding into trucks or transplanters, for example. Computers and software are intangible – growers know they need it, but it doesn’t necessarily directly translate into more units produced,” he says.

While integrating a computer into a bigger network represents a security risk, Lafferty says there are more attractive hacking targets than the average grower or garden center.

There could be some inconveniences involved in cloud-based computing, he adds.

“If you’re using software that you own and your business changes, you pay a programmer to modify your software. But in the cloud, you lose that flexibility. You may only get access to one custom field. Typically, what they deliver is what you get,” he says.

Before you commit to a cloud-based system, make sure you understand how to get out of it and how you’ll retrieve your data once you’re no longer using it, he warns.

Douglas is a Cleveland Heights, Ohio-based freelance writer and journalist. Nursery Management Editor Kelli Rodda contributed to this article.