Even the experts can have a hard time defining cloud computing in one to two sentences.

Doug Jacobson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State University, might have best summed it up by comparing it to renting a home instead of buying one.

“In a nutshell, it’s people selling you computing services,” he said. The services, which can include email, phone systems, website hosting and data storage, are delivered over the Internet.

The Business Record talked with four experts in cloud computing to find out what businesses should know about the topic.

1. Private vs. public

An important first step is understanding the difference between a public and private cloud, said Sondra Ashmore, a portfolio manager at IBM Corp. A private cloud can be thought of as “centralized hardware and software within a company,” she said. A public cloud system typically involves renting out space in a data center, though can be as simple as using Google Inc.’s “Docs” service or Apple Inc.’s iCloud. In both models, information is stored over the Internet and accessible from any computing device. Often, midsized and large companies will look to have their own internal private cloud, Ashmore said, while smaller companies will be more likely to rent space on a public cloud. Advantages of a private cloud include keeping all your information in-house and not risking putting that data into a third party’s hands. Public cloud systems can be helpful for a business without an information technology department. Adds Wade Brower, co-founder of IP Pathways LLC, there is no right or wrong answer.

2. Understand security

“As far as the actual protection of your data, there isn’t a whole lot of difference,” between the security on a cloud system as opposed to security issues on a company’s own internal server, Jacobson said. Cloud companies generally put great emphasis on the security of data, and Jacobson hasn’t seen any businesses run into security issues on a cloud. Important to watch for, though, is what storage providers are able to do with data provided to them based on their policies. “They are in possession of it,” Jacobson said. “You need to make sure you’re very clear as to what their policies are about the data. What can they do to or with the data?” Some businesses have been more reluctant to put intellectual property on a public cloud. It’s not necessarily less safe, but the business is putting trust in a third party for protection. As with any business partnership, the key is doing your homework and making sure you have reason to trust the provider, said IBM’s Ashmore.

3. Some business advantages

Being on a cloud-based system can provide a number of advantages for businesses. For one, it can allow employees to easily access data anytime, anywhere. A cloud system makes it easier to make across-the-board changes for software updates. It can centralize data storage and ensure that businesses aren’t wasting data. For example, many cloud systems let users purchase exactly the amount of storage they need, rather than having to guess on what size of server to purchase. For small businesses, using a public cloud system can be easier to set up and less expensive than using a traditional data center, said Christian Gurney, co-founder of Torsion Mobile LLC, a mobile website provider that runs its business operations entirely on a cloud system.

4. Different levels of service

Common services to implement using a public or private cloud include email, phone systems and website hosting. Beyond that, there are different levels of information storage that businesses have felt comfortable entrusting to cloud systems. As a larger company, “am I going to outsource my financials to some provider that’s sitting in a data center somewhere? Probably not,” Brower said. “If I’m a smaller company, maybe I consider it.” As a smaller company, Gurney’s Torsion Mobile has been comfortable with trusting Amazon.com Inc.’s cloud service, and has found the security to be strong. He notes that Torsion’s Amazon service doesn’t offer dedicated support. If having support makes a company more comfortable utilizing the cloud, Gurney notes that there are local companies that can provide those services, such as Appcore LLC and LightEdge Solutions Inc.

5. Get past the sales pitch

“The cloud” is often a catchphrase that computing businesses use to help sell their product, Brower said. The important thing to remember is that once you get past the marketing spin that companies put on cloud computing, it is beneficial for businesses whether they choose a public or private model. “Information technology (companies) in general are just getting more in tune with the needs of the end-user,” he said. “Our users don’t just sit at a desk in an office anymore. They work all over the place. And they need access to all the tools to do their job no matter where they are doing it.” A good example: IP Pathways has worked with Iowa Workforce Development to set up more than 1,500 virtual desktops at more than 500 sites across the state for its services, which can be accessed at public libraries, homeless shelters, human services organizations and National Guard armories, among other places.