Google Chromebooks, where do they fit in?

Google Chromebooks are beyond new, but although they’ve been on the market for a few years, it seems that 2013 has finally been the year of their ‘big’ breakthrough. The everlasting cloud hype combined with their low pricing and simplicity, make that Chromebooks are now being adopted faster than ever, and with good reason if you ask me. They just needed some time to warm up I guess. I agree, they’re not for everyone, and if we look at them from a business perspective use cases are still limited. So where do they fit in?

Google at Summit

I was hoping to see Google at Summit and luckily I wasn’t disappointed! They weren’t in the Solutions Expo, in between all the other vendors, where I thought they would be, no, they had a separate (private) section for themselves right in the middle of the Hyatt lobby (which was huge by the way). They named it the Google Lounge. You could hold, feel and test drive all of their new Chromebook models, most of which are now Citrix Ready verified, drink a cup of coffee, try on the new Google Glass or just hang out and relax. Check out the link to view some of their latest Chromebooks and sponsors.

In general

Either corporately owned or accepted as a BYO devices, I can understand the ‘power’ a Chromebook, or Chromebox for that matter, can bring to a company. They’re extremely safe, easy to use, lightweight and need no, or very little, maintenance. Oh, and did I mention that they’re cheap as hell? Your TCO will drop immensely. It’s even stated that Chromebooks get faster as time progresses, are they really that ‘smart’? On the other hand, they do need some serious getting used to and ‘handle’ completely different when compared to traditional laptops and or desktop. It isn’t for everyone, although nothing is. But if the shoe fits?

go

As a partner, Citrix is constantly trying to improve overall performance, including multimedia and graphic capabilities with continuous planned updates to Receiver for HTML5, as stated by Citrix. Note that We’re talking about the integrated StoreFront 2.x HTML5 based Receiver here. Just a few months ago Citrix removed the Receiver for Chromebook from the Google Chrome Web Store (do read some of the comments) and decided to replace it with the HTML5 based StoreFront Receiver instead. I didn’t use the Chrome Receiver myself but from reading several forums and Blogs I kind of got the feeling that it didn’t function the way it should’ve. And consider that an understatement :-)

Online state of mind

Let’s not forget, they’re not meant to replace laptops or desktop computers. If it’s locally installed (Windows) applications (and offline use) that you need, or perhaps the abillity to install applications yourself, than a Chromebook isn’t going to be sufficient. I’ll address some of the most common pros and cons in a bit. The same applies to privately owned Chromebooks and or boxes as well, you do need to be in a ‘online’ state of mind to want one, since that’s where most of your data will be stored, although nowadays, who isn’t, right?

Entering the Enterprise

Despite the above I do think, that at this moment, they’re far from enterprise ready. It isn’t because they lack local computing power, storage, off-line application use or anything like that. I mean, that’s a given and depending on your point of view, part of their strength as well. I’ll elaborate a bit more on these specific features in a minute. It’s something you’ll have to consider, and perhaps deal with, when studying the business case. While reading several user experiences and comments it seems that there’s simply (still) too much functionality missing or not behaving they way it should.

From a Citrix perspective

citrix-logo-250x250For example: there’s no support for ICA encryption, some people couldn’t get the HTML5 Receiver to work without a NetScaler in place, Citrix lacks long term (committed) roadmap information, printing isn’t straight forward (or doesn’t work), no HD graphics support, issues with multimedia and graphic capabilities in general, if you don’t use the latest StoreFront release it’s pretty much useless… and a few more. I’ve also come across someone who mentioned that Chromebooks aren’t available globally. Ranging from only one or two models in some countries to none in others. A whole other issues on it’s own, but one that needs to addressed none the less. Have a look yourself, checkout some of the articles and comments on these websites:

Corporate vs. BYOD.

Once the above issues get addressed, and I’m sure they will, I think we’ll see more enterprise oriented deployments being implemented, let’s give them some time shall we? They could prove to be a real valuable asset. Let’s have a look at some of the features, pros and cons Chromebooks and Boxes brings to the table, how does it all work? I won’t list all the good vs bad features, since, as you’ll find out shortly, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Note that although the below paragraphs (up to ‘Back to (the) business’) apply to Chromebooks in general, privately as well as company owned machines, most features and or applications won’t be available or allowed when used in an Enterprise environment. When used professionally you’ll leverage the Server Based Computing (SBC) concept using a (RDS, Receiver) client of some sort to connect up to a back-end system controlled by your IT department. When used privately, or in a BYOD setting, it will be a combination of both.

A bit more detailed

Chromebooks are designed with the internet in mind. They’re equipped with the Chrome Operating System, which is basically an advanced version of the Google Chrome internet browser. From there (the browser) you open and edit your documents, manage and install apps, browse the net and collaborate. Local computing power and hard disk space, although depending on your model, is minimal in most cases, but since you won’t have any local applications to manage (with a few exceptions) you don’t need that much RAM and CPU power anyway. Chromebooks use SSD like storage, ranging from 16 to 64 GB, again, depending on your model. It’s blazing fast, has no moving parts and doesn’t generate any heat.

Google Drive

244e120bb040e3c6dc1f3b18a3e2e95c5a13f245Although hard disk space is scarces, you won’t need that much anyway, most of your work will be done while being online and is automatically saved in the cloud. I realize this could be seen as a drawback just as easy. Chromebooks come with an online, cloud based, file storage service called Google Drive, which allows users to save data, typically up to a 100GB, for free over the first two years. Using Google Drive users can (when logged in with their Google account) access their content and files from any device, anywhere. This would typically be the same account you use to access your Gmail as well. You also use your Google account to login to your Chromebook (which is basically a connection to your Google Drive) this way you are the only one able to access and edit your files unless you choose to share some with your buddies or colleagues, which is also an option. Other people can sign in with their own Google accounts as well, on your machine, but won’t be able to access any data but their own, or they can browse the web as a guest, without signing in.

Applications

Google apps trainingSo where do we find them? Applications can be found in the Google Play, or the Chrome Web Store, it’s as simple as selecting an application, download and install just like you would do on your Smartphone, tablet etc. It’s based on the exact same principle. And since most Apps only take up a few dozen MB’s or less, perhaps a few hundred for some of the bigger software packages, running out of disk space is hard to imagine. Although I realize that a lot of you probably want to store your photo’s and videos on there as well. If so, some models can be upgraded with portable flash cards or you could use an external USB drive instead. There’s a whole range of free software products, thousands, and there are the ones you have to pay for, we all know how it works right?.

Always online

As mentioned, Chromebooks are designed with the internet in mind, meaning you’ll have to be online to make the most use out of your Chromebook. Nowadays the internet is everywhere, so this shouldn’t be too big of an issue (although it can be). There are Several models available with a 3G connection and for those willing to go the extra mile, the, more expensive, Chromebook Pixel even has a 4G connection build-in. However, the demand for offline accessible applications is also growing and as a result you’ll find a separate section in the Google store completely dedicated to offline accessible applications, including Google Drive and the build-in Google Docs (see below), that come with it, apps are being added daily.

It’s a small step for…

Google is most known for it search engine, however, over the past decade or so they extended their work terrain from applications and e-mail (Google Apps) to complete robotic factories, for future use I’m sure. Google Apps includes Google Drive, both mentioned earlier. Within Drive you’ll find some other applications, called Google Docs, used to create word like documents, spreadsheets, presentations etc…Of course there’s also Gmail, Calendar and few (hundred) more. In most cases it’s the Google Apps suite what draws the attention, and as a result people get more interested in the Google portfolio. From there, since it’s all very tightly integrated, it makes the step to try, or perhaps buy, a Chromebook a small and easy one. Another BYOD user in the making.

A note on Google Docs

google-docs-good-logoGoogle Docs was designed with the replacement of Microsoft Office in mind, but it doesn’t. Personally I’m a big fan of the Google document editor, the MS Word replacement so to speak, it does all it needs to do. Sure, it’s lacking some advanced features here and there, but for me those are minor ‘flaws’ I can easily live with. And I just love the ‘Saving…’ and ‘All changes saved in Drive’ feature at the top. I wrote this, and numerous other articles as well, using only Google Docs. I don’t use Excel that much, so I should be fine there as well. Presentations and drawings are another story, I definitely need Microsoft PowerPoint and Visio for those, Google’s alternative, for now,  just doesn’t cut it.

Back to (the) business

Although the above may, or may not, sound appealing to (BYOD) home users, business users however, will take the above for granted. They’re used to fancy laptops and desktop machines also equipped with fast, and large, SSD’s, chances are they’ll consider a Chromebook to be useless when it comes to their daily routines. Which, to be honest, is fair enough. They’ll need more than just some Android orientated (web) apps. Next to the standard Microsoft Office suite, yes, everybody uses it, there’s no denying, they’ll probably need a dozen or so in house developed applications all running on a Windows Server backend system of some sort. This is where Server Based Computing (SBC) comes in. Also, chances are that your online Google Drive won’t get accepted as a ‘valid’ data repository and your IT department will probably do everything necessary to restrict you from copying any company related data into your Drive, and rightfully so if you ask me.

Local and remote

citrixWhen working locally, on the corporate LAN for example, you could use the Chrome Remote Desktop App, developed and offered by Google, to connect to one of your corporate backend (HSD) machines. If you’re looking for something a bit more fancy, I’d recommend the earlier mentioned HTML5 Receiver as part of Citrix StoreFront, which will also provide you with secure remote access, assuming your infrastructure is set up accordingly. Yes, this can also be (partly) done using the Chrome Remote Desktop app or VMware Horizon View for example, but we all know ICA is superior right? When using Citrix Receiver your users will either connect to a Hosted Shared Desktop or use published (virtualised) applications instead (this is where Citrix excels) enabling them to do their jobs as if nothing has changed. Assuming that most, or all, of the issues mentioned earlier get resolved of course. Using Chromebooks this way still requires an internet connection but also adds to their overall flexibility and Enterprise readiness. So what’s next?!

The usual

Using ‘normal’ laptop and desktop machines requires maintenance, anti virus software needs to be installed and kept up to date, (Microsoft) hotfixes and security updates will be there (at least) every second Tuesday of each month. And besides the ‘defaults’ there’s probably a whole list of software that needs to be deployed on every new machine that gets shipped out to your users. Laptops are expensive, heavy, they use a lot of power and batteries drain quickly. I know, I’m making it sound like they’re no good at all, which we all know isn’t the (whole) truth. Not being depended on a App store (which has it’s limitations) for example, offers advantages as well. With this (and the below) in mind, you’ll have to consider if all this is an advantage or not.

Chrome is different

Chromebooks, and Boxes, are different. Although your users will probably need some time to get used to the concept, they are very straight forward to operate and require little to no maintenance. Updates and patches are pushed and installed automatically from Google. You won’t need to install any antivirus software, it’s all build in, each time you power up your Chromebook it will automatically update itself with the latest features, hardware and system updates, antivirus included.

Google states: Each time you turn on your Chromebook, the system automatically checks for updates and applies any updates that it finds. This means your device will get better over time and you’ll always be using the latest and greatest version of the operating system as stated by Google. I must admit, that does sound appealing from an IT Administrator point of view, and I’m sure a lot of your users will agree as well :-) Bring in your own Chromebook why won’t you?! Depending on your scenario, not being able to ‘control’ a laptop or PC as discribed can be seen as a drawback, which is something you’ll have to consider as well.

Secure and tested

Since (almost) everything is done from the browser it’s important that is’t reliable and secure. Therefore each web page and application you visit runs in its own restricted environment. So visiting one page that’s been infected with something malicious can’t affect anything else on your computer. Google is, just like any other vendor, always trying to improve their platform, so before any new software changes make it into the Chrome OS they’re first tested in both a beta and development version of the Chrome OS. If customers are interested, they can take part in  this process as well.

Total cost of ownership

Or TCO in short. Something that Google takes seriously, although there’s a bit of marketing involved as well. They’ve developed their own online Chromebook TCO calculator. It’s relatively simple but it does give you a high level overview on some of the primary costs that come with a PC / laptop refresh project vs Chromebooks.

Some overall pros and cons

0013473_113832These don’t necessarily apply to business users, some do, some don’t. Chromebooks are cheap, lightweight and (partly) because their latest models now also use the new Haswell-based chips, they can offer a battery life up to 9 hours in total, although It must be said that most modern laptops today are also showing great improvement when it comes to battery saving techniques. Chromebooks don’t support HD graphics, they’re not made for gaming, you won’t find any optical drives and printing can be hard to figure out. On some of the cheaper models you won’t get more than 10GB of storage (the Chrome OS takes up the other 6GB), so you’ll be forced to use your Google Drive instead (or external storage) but that’s the whole idea anyway. Working offline is supported but only for a limited set of applications and you can’t install any (Windows) applications the way you’re used to with traditional laptops, instead you’ll have to address the app store. Meaning, if it isn’t in there, you’re out of luck.

Conclusion

Although I don’t own one, just bought a Macbook Air, I’m still a fan. I like it when things are made easy, simple and functional, although I’m sure that a lot of you don’t agree on the functional part. From a business perspective there’s still a lot that needs to be improved, but I’m pretty sure they’ll get there in the end. As an IT admin, which I’m not, I would embrace them as well, although there wouldn’t be much work left I guess.

I don’t think they’ll ‘rule the world’ at some point, but given their immense popularity, sales numbers were huge on Amazon in 2013, and professional involvement (Citrix, VMware, Google) and development over the past two years, I’m sure we’ll see their market share grow a few hundred percent not to long from now. And although it’s starting to sound like a cliche, it all depends on your use case as far as adoption goes. As always, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution and the same applies to Chromebooks as well, you’ll have to consider their limitations and turn those into an advantage! What do you think, what did I miss? Please share your thoughts.

Bas van Kaam ©

Reference materials used: Google.com, Brianmadden.com, Techtarget.com and Citrix.com

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Google Chromebooks, where do they fit in?

  1. Frank Kolijn

    Hey Bas,
    Ik heb zojuist je bovenstaande artikel gelezen. Het hele concept van chromebooks spreekt mij aan, temeer omdat wij nagenoeg volledig online werken. Via citrix, dat dan weer wel. Onze hostingprovider is niet zo erg in voor chromebooks omdat dit niet zou werken met citrix. Uit je blog meen ik toch iets anders te mogen afleiden. Het zal wel een technisch verhaal zijn maar ik begrijp gewoon weg niet dat citrix niet werkt op een chromebook, mij lijkt het een ideale combinatie en bijna voor elkaar gemaakt. Maar goed dat schrijf ik als leek (gebruiker). Ik ben benieuwd naar de laatste ontwikkelingen en ervaringen in de combinatie chromebook en citrix.

    Reply
    1. Bas van Kaam Post author

      Hoi Frank,

      Bedankt voor je berichtje. Het is inderdaad een wat technisch verhaal en heeft veel te maken met welke componenten er op dit moment worden gebruikt, bij jullie hostingprovider in dit geval, maar het zou zeker prima kunnen werken. Om hier echt iets nuttigs over te kunnen zeggen zou ik moeten weten hoe jullie op dit moment werken / verbinden etc. Ik moet wel toegeven dat er op dit moment nog niet veel bedrijven en/of instanties zijn die op deze manier werken, grootschalig bedoel ik dan. Er zijn in het verleden nogal wat problemen geweest met het werken vanaf Chromebooks op Citrix, dit heeft diverse (technische) oorzaken, echter wordt de techniek natuurlijk ook steeds beter. Dit houdt dan wel weer in dat je aan bepaalde technische voorwaarden (met name aan de backend kant) zal moeten voldoen om alles werkend te kunnen krijgen. Ik denk dat we hier in de toekomst zeker meer van gaan horen, misschien niet op zeer grote schaal maar voor enkele tientallen tot honderden gebruikers zou het een prima oplossing kunnen zijn. Innovatief is het zeker :-)

      Vriendelijke groet,

      Bas.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s