Cloud computing, a way to store information and access software programs from far-away data farms, is transforming computers from a product-based to a service-based industry.

The approach - a bundle of already existing technologies - depends on computers being connected through the Internet. Proponents say businesses and consumers benefit from lower costs, the ability to scale to need and redundancy.

However, some caution that storing data in the cloud - a reference to the Internet - makes consumers more vulnerable to security breaches of stolen data that could interfere with personal and professional life and waste millions of dollars.

Cloud computing is expected to swell into a $241 billion market by 2020, estimates analysts at Forrester Research, a  Cambridge, Mass., based technology market research company - from $40.7 billion in 2011.

Established tech firms such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and upstarts such as Dropbox have entered the market with distinct products that include storage and software and varying capabilities with smartphones.

However, 2011 saw several data breaches into computer centers of companies such as Sony, Amazon's Zappos and Expedia that made millions of users vulnerable.

Most of what we've seen happen are breaches that result in downtime, but not the loss of personally identifiable information like customer and employee Social Security numbers and birthdates-at least not yet, David Navetta, a partner at Denver-based Information Law Group, told Business Insurance. That's the big concern, of course, since a single cloud provider may house sensitive information on tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of individuals.

According to two surveys, while many companies have already adopted the approach, others are using a wait-and-see approach to determine whether cloud computing is a good strategy or another buzz phrase.

About two-thirds [of respondents] are still in early discussions, trials or not considering a move to the cloud at all, Symantec, a security software vendor based in Mountain View, Calif., whose products include Norton Anti-Virus, said about its survey. While organizations are excited about cloud, discussing all forms of cloud, most are stalled at the discussion/trial phase.

A 2012 survey in Information Age broke it down further and found that nearly half of organizations now have software as a service delivered through the Internet instead of as a product. Nearly a third (31.5 percent) already adopted the necessary infrastructure for cloud computing, but one in five companies (17.5 percent) surveyed said they intended to pursue cloud computing in 2012.

Cloud computing has become the buzz term in IT, attracting millions of dollars in venture capital and dozens of companies trying to get a slice of the market. At least one analyst suggested interest in cloud computing has created a bubble, much like the dotcom bubble in the late 90s.

I believe we're living in a cloud computing bubble, Joe Panettieri, editorial director of Nine Lives Media, said in an editorial in its Talkin' Cloud publication Monday. When it pops, dozens - perhaps hundreds - of cloud computing vendors will go bust and their partners will be forced to pursue alternative options.

However, companies are riding high on cloud computing. On Tuesday, data storage company EMC posted record fourth-quarter profits driven by cloud computing.

EMC, based in Hopkinton, Mass., the largest vendor of storage products, saw a 14 percent increase in revenue from 2010 and had a year-long increase in revenue of 18 percent, according to a report from The Street.

EMC had a strong and record-breaking 2011, Joe Tucci, EMC CEO, said in a statement. There's no doubt that cloud computing is completely transforming the IT industry and that Big Data promises to have a similarly profound effect on transforming the way we work and live.

Though it's too early to tell, one IT executive said that hybrids may be the best approach - using the cloud for backup.

Maybe there are some things you can do in the cloud model, and some things that you can't because maybe you don't feel as secure, David Nichols, principal and Americas CIO services leader for Ernst & Young IT Advisory Services, told Forbes. But the cloud could be one more failsafe. Maybe you can get one or two or three more '9s' from a recovery perspective that you couldn't have gotten otherwise. Maybe this is a cheaper way to get there than it was to have to buy all the stuff and house yourself.  And that's just on the data storage side.

Like email accounts, some say the best way to protect yourself in the cloud is your password.

Consumers need to remember that their data is only as safe as the guards they put in place to protect it, Graham Cluley, prominent Internet security expert and senior technology consultant for the security firm Sophos, told Deal News. So, some of these cloud-based services may have very good security to fend off hackers - but if you are using an easy-to-guess or simple-to-crack password then you might as well be defending your data with tissue paper.

Consumers interested in learning more about cloud computing security breaches can visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a non-profit consumer advocate based in San Diego.