Despite some early red flags, many of us are welcoming the release of Windows 8. Among this operating system's departures from the previous version is some serious cloud integration. Windows 8 is built to work hand-in-hand with SkyDrive and bring users' computing experience into the clouds, whether they want it there or not.

Is Microsoft ready to deliver in the brave new world of cloud computing? Judging by the extensive tools the software giant is deploying to the cloud, the company has put a lot of faith behind this relatively new technology platform. The good news is, end users stand to benefit significantly.

Computing in the Cloud

You've probably already heard a lot about cloud computing. This virtualized platform allows users to run programs and store files without taking up hard drive space. In a cloud-based system, data is stored on third-party servers (usually at strategically located, massive, and highly secure server farms), and end users access programs and files through an Internet connection.

There are tremendous benefits to this system. For one, it's substantially cheaper than a standard hardware setup. Instead of shelling out hundreds of thousands for software that's going to be outdated in no time, users pay a low monthly subscription rate for access to everything. Cloud computing saves on hardware maintenance and provides anywhere access to files, whether on a computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet.

The drawback to the cloud has always been the issue of security. For those who move completely to a cloud-based system, there is potential downtime and the possibility that data can be hacked or stolen. (To learn more about cloud computing's security issues, read The Dark Side of the Cloud.)

Windows 8 Cloud Features

Launched well before the Windows 8 OS, SkyDrive is Microsoft's cloud software and storage platform for casual and business users. The service is free for up to 7 GB of storage space, and SkyDrive can handle file sizes up to 2 GB. This platform also provides Office Web Apps, which allow users to upload, create, edit and share using the latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Windows 8 includes some changes that fully integrate SkyDrive. For both desktops and smartphones, Windows 8 bumps up the accessibility factor for the SkyDrive folder, making it just as easy to navigate and use as your hard drive storage locations. In fact, Windows RT - the version of the OS that's designed with an emphasis on touch screen interfaces - automatically uploads pictures and videos to the SkyDrive folder, rather than storing them on your phone or tablet. (Learn more about Windows RT in Windows RT 101.)

SkyDrive and Office 2013

Set to launch next year, the latest version of Microsoft Office offers a true cloud experience. One notable change is the default save location. All previous versions of Office defaulted to the hard drive (usually My Documents), but Windows 8 automatically saves to a user's SkyDrive folder.

The new Office also offers a choice in purchasing and/or licensing the software. Users can still choose to buy the software and associate the single license with the machine of their choice. However, they can also opt for a subscription-based service that lets allows them to install Office on up to five PCs or mobile devices. Office 2013 subscriptions will come with personal SkyDrive accounts that provide users with 20 GB of storage, instead of the standard 7 GB offered with free accounts.

What does this mean for users? Many people are now working from more than one location; they may have an office PC, a home PC, and a mobile device or two for work on the fly. With the new Office model, switching devices is a seamless experience because documents and settings remain intact, no matter how they are accessed.

Windows Cloud Pros and Cons

Allowing a single user to install multiple instances of software is a huge leap forward for Microsoft, a company that's notorious for its miserly licensing and grudging reinstall procedures. With Windows 8, the software colossus seems to be stepping up its game in the customer service realm. But lower costs and heightened accessibility aren't the only advantages to a cloud-based Windows. The ability to sync settings across multiple devices is also a huge plus. With this platform, users will find a familiar interface at their fingertips no matter where they log in to their Microsoft account, including a personalized user photo, screen images, browser favorites, customized spell check dictionaries, and even mouse settings. Users can also use any apps they've installed from the Windows Store on any other device.

The disadvantages to all this cloud access are equivalent to other cloud-based platforms, including security and downtime. While Microsoft is certainly safe and reputable, all digital environments come with inherent risks. There's also the inescapable network downtime, although Microsoft is no slouch here, with an average 99.97 percent uptime.

Storage limits could also be a problem for power users. While 7 GB is a lot of space, pictures and videos can quickly fill that allotment. However, additional storage is fairly cheap, starting at an extra 20 GB for $10 a year.

The New Tech Frontier

With Windows 8, Microsoft trots out its willingness to not only embrace new technology, but also to make it bigger, better and more accessible. The new cloud integration enhances Microsoft's chances at seizing a larger share of the Apple- and Android-dominated mobile device market. However, the real test lies in the release, when users get the chance to play in the clouds and decide for themselves whether Microsoft's integration of the cloud is a dream come true or a fantasy that has yet to be fulfilled.