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Chromebooks, VDI go hand-in-hand for IT admins

Are the VDI capabilities in Google Chromebooks enough to combat low power and limited VPN options? IT admins weigh in on this low-cost alternative for enterprise deployment.

BOSTON -- Google Chromebooks combined with virtual desktop infrastructure can be an alternative to Windows PCs in the enterprise, but IT admins must consider the pros and cons before they deploy the devices.

In a session at BriForum here this week, Dan Shappir, CTO of Ericom Software Inc., which is based in Closter, New Jersey, discussed issues IT admins must consider -- such as cost, manageability, and support for enterprise applications -- before deploying Chromebooks in their organizations.

"Chromebooks are coming but you're going to see it more in education at first," said Brian Katz, director of mobile innovation for a large pharmaceutical based in New Jersey. He added that a Chromebook in the enterprise may be the right device depending upon the use case.

"Chromebooks make sense if you're using Google apps," said Katz. "The question is what do you want to do? If it fits the use case, it can be a great choice."

Swett & Crawford Group Inc., a wholesale insurance broker based in Atlanta, is not concerned about managing Chromebooks because the company treats them like personal devices, said Travis Conley, infrastructure manager for the company. Conley said his company uses Chromebooks in a "temporary check-out situation."

Chromebooks make sense if you're using Google apps. The question is what do you want to do?
Brian Katzdirector of mobile innovation for a large pharmaceutical based in New Jersey

A user who is not normally mobile and needs a laptop for the week can check out a Chromebook and connect to the office using VDI, he said.

Indeed, Chromebooks are useful for enterprises with VDI where workers run Windows applications using VDI while corporate data remains secure because it is not stored locally. Chromebooks can act as a thin client and be managed by the Google Apps Console, or IT can manage Chromebooks using the Google Management Console.

"This is why VDI is great for us," Conley said. "We want to maintain the data in the data center and Chromebooks are a great solution for that." Swett & Crawford has used Wyse thin clients, but Conley found they were not cost effective and the management costs were "not worth it."

Chromebooks on the rise

The NPD Group, a research firm tracking sell-through data via commercial and retail channels, said 35% of U.S. channel notebook sales from January to May 2014 were attributed to Chromebooks. Samsung led the sales with 48% market share, followed by Acer with 31%, Hewlett-Packard with 17% and other vendors comprising the remaining 4%.

For the first three weeks in June, Chromebook sales also hit a spike as a result of the education sector's buying season, the company said.

The total cost of ownership (TCO) for a Chromebook could also be drastically lower than that of a Windows PC, Shappir said. Factors impacting TCO include the purhchase and maintenance of hardware, management and administration overhead, IT software and infrastructure and end user costs.

These calculations are driving Microsoft to react, Shappir said.

Earlier this month, Microsoft touted the benefits of low-cost notebook PCs from leading OEM partners such as Hewlett-Packard. HP is slated to release the Stream notebook PC for $199 later this fall. The starting price for a Chromebook is $199 and ranges all the way up to a high-end Google Chromebook Pixel for $1,299.

In Swett & Crawford's case, Conley said the cost savings for Chromebooks were enough that the company could move to another platform without worrying about cost if something went wrong.

There are many other benefits to Chromebooks in the enterprise, including ease of use, integration with Google Apps, audio and video conferencing capabilities and long battery life. Google recently previewed Android apps running on Chromebooks, which could expand the realm for more apps available on the low-cost devices, Shappir said.

Even third-party companies such as PowWow showed enterprise apps delivered on a Chromebook and other mobile devices.

Managing devices is an issue IT admins must consider -- however it may not be a particularly complex problem.

IT doesn't need to wipe a device and rebuild it like it does for Windows 7. Instead a much simpler reset and reissue could accomplish the same goal and only takes a few minutes, Katz said.

Chromebook's enterprise drawbacks

Chromebooks can be underpowered, or may have limited offline capabilities and VPN options, small local storage and potential challenges with Microsoft Office compatibility, Shappir said.

Issues stemming from Chromebook are important for IT to consider, and include VDI and Remote Desktop Session Host services, as well as what other systems are running such as Windows, Mac OS or Linux, he said.

Shappir added IT also needs to consider how Chromebook keyboards are slightly different from the traditional Windows PC keyboards, whether basic functions such as printing is important and what policies surrounding secure remote access and SSL VPN compatibility are in use in the organization.

Despite the benefits for Chromebooks in business, the device may not be right, especially for those who do not support the cloud.

If an environment does not use the cloud, devices need frequent offline access, or mobile users require more powerful capabilities for content creation, a Chromebook many not serve the enterprise's purpose, Shappir said.

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