Google's Chrome browser is at the top of the heap right now, but the Chrome OS operating system based on it has always been a questionable prospect.
Who would want to buy a computer that's basically nothing but a big web browser, with minimal local storage and almost no peripheral support? The benefits, like blazing fast startup time and easy app installation, don't seem to outweigh the drawbacks.
So it was surprising to see that shipping and distribution company Quality Distribution Inc. (QDI) recently deployed more than 400 Chrome devices in conjunction with a move to Google Gmail as its corporate email system. QDI worked with Cloud Sherpas, a Google enterprise distributor, to get the whole system up and running.
Cliff Dixon, the VP of IT for QDI, explained to CITEworld what the company was thinking.
The Chrome devices are part of a bigger strategic shift to web apps. And guess who drove that move? Not the IT department, but users. It's a classic case of consumerization.
"Users were not necessarily saying 'we should be working on apps that are HTML5,'" says Dixon. "They were saying 'Why can't I do my workflow process on my iPad?'"
QDI's move toward a web-first environment started a few years ago. QDI has a network of more than 125 branches and regional affiliates in the U.S. A lot of these affiliates are franchisees, many with fewer than five employees, and they have widely varying technical capabilities. Deploying and managing software on traditional PCs in this highly fractured environment was a headache.
"We had proprietary, locally installed apps. Every day we were having to do things like troubleshoot ODBC settings on local machines."
So several years ago the company converted to running all core apps on Terminal Services, a centralized Windows desktop environment that runs on Windows Server machines. Then, QDI offered cheap refurbished PCs for franchisees to access those apps.
At the same time, the expense of keeping its Microsoft software licenses up to date was spurring QDI to take a serious look at Google Apps. Dixon says, "When the Chromebook was announced we realized it was a perfect fit, it was exactly what we wanted to do. It lets us standardize to a vision."
QDI bought about 250 Chromebooks to replace the refurbished laptops some affliates were using, plus another 200 Chromeboxes – stationary cube-like desktop computers – for franchisees that didn't care about mobile access. But importantly, the Chrome devices aren't a requirement. They're just an inexpensive, low-touch way for QDI to provide access to the web-based environment it's been building over the last few years.
We supply hardware to franchise owners for their locations. We optimize our environment to have a good experience, but if an affiliate decides they want to have Macbooks run at their location, they can do that. I don’t want any hardware requirement put on access to apps and data," says Dixon.
QDI also moved 1,200 employees and affiliates to Google's Gmail for email, but it still has a lot of old Windows apps – including a critical proprietary app for managing transportation, as well as some Microsoft Office – running on Terminal Services. For now, the company uses a virtualization solution from Ericom to provide access to these apps on any device, including the company-distributed Chrome devices. Eventually, Dixon says, they want to move off Office and to Google Apps entirely, but it'll take time.
If you want to follow in QDI's footsteps and move to an all-web environment, what's the biggest challenge?
Dixon says it was understanding the network bandwidth requirements of an all-web environment, and securing that bandwidth for its far flung franchisees.
QDI had MPLS network circuts at each location, but they were designed with a QoS hierarchy that put Internet access at the lowest priority level – below telephony, RDP (for remote desktop access), and even printing. "The Internet was considered just people watching videos." So QDI had to do a pretty significant redesign of its network. It also added bandwidth and installed wireless access points for franchisees that didn't have them.
Training is also very important.
"No matter how much you do, it's looked at like not doing enough," warns Dixon. "Users need to see where it would add time back to their day, where they’ll benefit from what they're being given. The performance from Chromebooks and Chromeboxes are better than the PCs we're putting out there."
QDI is just one story, but it's a signal that Google's strategic shift for Chrome devices just might work.
Chrome computers were originally envisioned as a consumer alternative to cheap netbooks, which were very hot among consumers in 2008. Then the iPad came along, and the netbook market collapsed – before Google had time to get Chromebooks to market.
Late last year, Google began pitching Chrome devices to businesses and schools, and put the head of its Chrome business, Sundar Pichai (shown here), in charge of Google Apps and enterprise sales.
As QDI's experience shows, in a web-first environment, Chrome devices make a lot more sense as a business product than a consumer product. Employees are less likely to want to connect peripherals like digital cameras or MP3 players. All data is stored in the cloud, so a missing device doesn't mean permanent data loss. All software is installed and updated over the network, and the devices can be managed from the web, so organizations don't have to touch each device to update software. They're also built to be resistant to malware, and to boot nad resume from sleep almost instantly, saving precious seconds of productivity.
The takeaway? Consumerization is driving a lot of IT shops to move apps to the web, where they can be accessed easily from any device. As that happens, organizations might just find that Chrome devices are a cheap and reasonable alternative for company-issued kit.