Nearly every day I come across an article discussing how the cloud can help small businesses grow or be more productive. Just as often, I see a headline claiming the cloud is just a lot of hot air. So, which should we believe? Is the cloud truly an asset to companies looking to grow?

A recent AT&T survey, highlighted in this webinar, found the biggest cloud users are fast-growing companies—those whose revenues rose 10 percent or more in 2012. What do these winning organizations know that others don’t? For one, they understand the cloud helps free them from spending time to build their infrastructure so they can focus on growth. And they know the cloud can help reduce costs and improve customer service.

As a result, many small businesses now perceive the cloud as critical to their future growth, according to a recent research review by Slashdot. Here are four ways the cloud can help small businesses grow:

1. Back up and store data

Data backup and storage are among the most common uses of the cloud for small businesses. About three-quarters of the businesses surveyed rely on the cloud for this. Respondents say the payoff includes ease of use, improved productivity, and reduced IT costs. Services like AT&T Backup and Go back up data automatically and include sophisticated versioning capabilities that let you retain and retrieve older copies of files.

Remote backup and storage can also help protect your company from malware and natural disasters, among other threats. Reputable cloud providers also store their clients’ data on redundant servers, so if one goes down, the others retain it.

2. Gain instant computing power

When you’re in the cloud, you can access resources on demand. I know of a good number of startups that got off the ground quickly because they had the freedom to create and experiment without making a huge investment in infrastructure or IT staff. For more established companies, the cloud offers a way to seamlessly handle surges in demand. Think of a small provider of games for mobile phones whose latest game takes off. The cloud offers a way to manage a sudden flood of usage without forcing the company to buy servers that might sit idle once the peak passes.

3. Improve collaboration

Another solid benefit of the cloud is enabling remote staffers to work together in real time. Let’s say you manage a sales team with members in several locations. Your salespeople can use a cloud-based file-sharing service to update timelines, pitch decks, and other documents. And they can do this wherever they are—in the office, at home, or on the road using their smartphones. This will be one of the most valuable cloud capabilities for businesses in 2013, according to Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, writing in Forbes.

Cloud-based conferencing services also have potential to help keep organizations in sync. You can meet with remote colleagues, customers, and suppliers through your computer or mobile device—no need to get on an airplane or buy costly conferencing equipment. I also know of businesses that use these services to conduct virtual training, which can be another powerful cost saver.

4. Level the playing field

Finally, the cloud helps small businesses look and operate like larger ones. Cloud-based Web hosting and design tools are an integral part of this. These include capabilities that make it easier to build and maintain a compelling Web presence, such as do-it-yourself tools for creating web pages, including mobile-friendly ones; intuitive dashboards for easy updating; analytics tools for monitoring website and mobile traffic; and domain-based email with built-in calendaring and collaboration tools.

Want to dig deeper into these applications? This checklist shows what to look for in a best-of-breed cloud app and can help you map out a cloud strategy for your organization.

Are you currently using the cloud? What results have you seen? Share your experiences below. I’d love to hear about them.