If you are a cloud virgin, what is the best way to get started and learn more about what the cloud can offer? Here are several suggestions, from the perspective of someone who has moderate IT knowledge and not necessarily the full backing and support resources of an IT department behind them. The idea here is to demonstrate some of the key concepts of cloud computing, as well as introduce you to some cool tools. We have also tried to focus on those that offer free trials or services that are relatively inexpensive and easy to get started with.

  • Set up a Google Docs account, and create a native document in its repository. Now share it with a couple of friends and see how the real-time editing process works. Resist the temptation to email this document and keep it inside Google's repository. Think about the benefits here: instead of waiting for comments and trying to resolve different authors' revisions, you can do it in the now. Certainly, Word documents and slide presentations lend themselves best to this real-time treatment.
  • Do the same thing for Box.net, , and try one of its fax connectors to send the document from your cloud to your own fax machine to try it out. Box has lots of other connectors to extend the functionality of your storage repository, as you can see below in the screenshot. You can also tie your Box account with your LinkedIn account, so that people viewing your profile there can download PDFs of writing samples or recommendation letters.
  • Use one of the cloud-based spreadsheet programs that I mention here and upload your own Excel data to it. These can be easier to use than Google Docs, and also support a wider range of features specific to spreadsheets and databases.

  • Use the Salesforce for Intuit QuickBooks . You can setup a free account and upload your own customer list. This product connects both the customer relationship Salesforce with the accounting software Quickbooks, and everything is happening up in the cloud to manage your company financial and customer data. Intuit has several cloud offerings besides these connectors, including WebTurboTax where you can do your taxes using the cloud.

  • Windows Live Mesh can make it easier to remotely control your Windows and even Mac desktops. You can synchronize files between computers, keep your bookmarks/favorites the same and control your PC from a browser in a remote location. While this isn't entirely cloud-based - you do need to download the Live Mesh software to each desktop - it does show you where Microsoft is going with some of its Live cloud-based services.

  • Set up a server on Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Amazon has been a long-time entrant into the cloud computing space and its EC2 offers a wide range of features. Getting started is somewhat cumbersome, and here is a short screencast video that explains the initial setup process.

  • Setup two Windows machines on Cloudshare.com. While Amazon certainly has lots of mindshare, as you can tell from the setup video above it isn't the easiest service to get started with. A better choice might be Cloudshare.com, which has a free trial period and a dirt-simple browser-based process to get going. You can setup a Windows 2008 Server and Windows 7 client for testing purposes and upload a few sample Web pages for IIS or set up a Sharepoint server and client. The two machines are connected via their own cloud network, and you can access them via remote desktop connections too.

By no means are these the only cloud-based services, or even the simplest out there. We use them as examples of how the cloud has begun to grow and incorporate a wide variety of services for both small and large businesses. Do you have your own favorite sites for cloud newbies? Please share your own suggestions.