Why firms will take a shine to Chromebooks

Google's Chrome for business expert, Rajen Sheth, explains why cloud-based Chromebook laptops will have a real impact on business IT

With the appearance of the first Chromebooks — cloud-based laptops running the Chrome OS — ZDNet UK tracked down Google's Chrome for business expert, Rajen Sheth, to find out why he thinks this technology should matter to firms.

The week before Microsoft's major IT conference, Google announced the first production Chromebook models from Samsung and Acer.

For a monthly fee, you get laptop hardware and a browser-based operating system, Chrome OS, locked down to the cloud.

Partnerships with VMware and Citrix mean support for virtualised Windows applications, and Google says this concept offers better security and far lower management costs than running the real thing — an approach aimed straight at the heart of Microsoft's strategy.

We asked Rajen Sheth, group program manager for Chrome for business, exactly what organisations get with a Chromebook and why they'd consider switching from Windows.

Q: How does the Chromebook approach differ from thin computing or Sun's plan for the network computer — or just a netbook running a browser?
A: I think this is larger than the launch of just a couple of hardware platforms and a new operating system. It's a fundamental transformation in business computing.

There are three big trends that have revolutionised server-side computing in the past few years. First, the cloud — companies have gone from not even thinking about cloud applications to everybody having a cloud strategy. Secondly, the browser is many times faster in just the past few years. Clients in the browser can be richer than on the desktop. Finally, [there is] desktop virtualisation, moving applications off the desktop and onto the server so they can be accessed everywhere.

What's missing? The desktop. The benefits of the cloud stop there. Desktop management is very, very tough. Gartner reckons management for a desktop costs between $3,000 and $5,000 (£1,900 and £3,100) per year and higher for a laptop. The desktop takes administrative resource from the moment you buy it. Cloud is very simple to set up and administer. It updates itself all the time. You don't have to keep doing it.

And security. The desktop is very, very hard to secure from viruses and loss of laptops. People go through so much to try to recover that data, yet 60 percent of corporate data still resides on people's desktops. Chrome OS is transformational in simplicity for users and administrators, in security — it turns things like antivirus on its head — and in speed.

But when a business buys a Chromebook, what are they getting that's different from buying a notebook and running any browser on it?

The ultimate bottom line is that the total cost of ownership [of a Chromebook] can be less than half of what people pay right now.

The enterprise package is a combination of a Chromebook, the web-management console and full workplace support. Subscriptions start at $28 with constant software updates and, every three years, new hardware. Originally we were thinking a shorter term but a lot of our customers said there is definitely a fixed cost to moving to new hardware. Three years works well for them.

Dell will lease you a laptop for $30 (£17) a month but you're just getting the hardware. You have to get antivirus, you have to get backup software, you have to have management software. The ultimate bottom line is that the total cost of ownership [of a Chromebook] can be less than half of what people pay right now.

What is simpler to manage on a Chromebook than on a Windows notebook?
In a typical enterprise, adding an employee is a task that takes hours. With Chromebook, it's literally a matter of seconds. We're planning to make set-up a lot easier.

That's just for setting up a user, not for creating policies. What management features do you have in Chrome — is that as rich as in Windows?
Right now, it's user and user management as well as authentication management and application management — deploying applications across your domain and pushing them to your desktops. Policy management for Chrome includes what the desktop looks like and does, and what people can do to the device. That's just the start.

There are a lot of different things we could add down the line...

...[for example] different configuration set-ups, so that wherever you walk in you're already set up with secure Wi-Fi and VPN, printer set-up and asset management.

Right now, you can integrate Active Directory for users and authentication. You can't yet integrate with policies you have stored elsewhere. Can we open up APIs as we've done in other places so you could integrate? You can set up organisational units and roles [in the web console] and you're able to set policies for groups.

Our first target is to get the product out there, but you will see us do more to open it up. It'll be like Google Apps where we've continually opened up APIs to integrate other management environments as well.

You've mentioned a desktop version of the Chromebook. Do you have more details on that and why you're offering it?
Customer feedback was that the notebook was great but not for everything. If I'm deploying in a call centre, I want more of a desktop product, hence the Chrome Box. We don't have details on price or timing but it will be a subscription just as we have for the Chromebook.

What size of business are you aiming at? Small businesses with no admin staff to do managed desktops, VPNs and firewalls? Or large enterprises with cloud strategies?
We've seen interest across the board, given that it works with applications that are both sides of your firewall. We're seeing interest from companies that are starting off now completely in the cloud. Groupon is a great example. They don't have anything behind a firewall so it's a great model for them.

There's also interest from mid-size and larger companies. In particular, there are specialised workforces where this approach is useful immediately — places like retail, call centres or hotels.

You don't need to move the whole company at the same time. You can move at your pace in small groups. This is the first new OS in history to be released where you don't have to move your applications to another platform. You can use the existing applications that you have.

But that's because the enterprise will be packaging up and virtualising applications to stream to the desktop with Citrix XenApp or VMware, just as they would with a managed PC or a Mac already, and they have to pay for that. When will those tools be ready for Chromebooks?
VMware is building a version of VMware Viewer. Citrix is already in beta with customers and it's actually very close to shipping. VMware is in the midst of working on their implementation.

As a US service, you might have to make my data available to the US government under the Patriot Act. You've stated that everything stored on the Chromebook is encrypted, but is that backed up in your cloud and do you have the encryption keys?
Everything on the Chromebook is encrypted with very minimal data in the cloud. It's basically just the user IDs and some policies. We have to abide by the law. But one of the things we are very, very strong about is if we get a request, we defer the request back to the company.

We essentially just hold the information for that company. In the vast majority of cases, literally 99.9 percent, we can have the company deal directly with the government.


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