BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
One of the benefits of VDI is that users can choose nearly any devices they want as clients -- even bargain-basement thin client laptops such Google Chromebooks.
Naturally there are some boundaries to IT not caring which client devices users choose. It is important that the device lets the user get the job done and doesn't expose the business to any unacceptable risks. Google Chromebooks fit that description; they are simple and cheap devices whose sole purpose is to run the Chrome browser. Google likes to advertise the cloud-connected nature and relative disposability of these devices, which is similar to traditional thin clients. So what is a Chromebook remote desktop like?
How to set up remote desktop for Chromebook
To set up a Chromebook for VDI access, IT must install and configure a native client for its VDI platform or set up the URL for an HTML5 client. Once an administrator sets up a user's applications and favorites, they will follow the user to any new Chromebook. Google's Native Client configuration and any certificate authority configuration may not follow so easily.
Google offers device management for Chromebooks through its Google Apps for Work service. Google Apps includes plenty of tools for controlling the use of the Chromebook as a computer, but not a lot for making the Chromebook a VDI client. The Google tools let IT install the Native Client and set up a favorite URL, but not configure the Native Client. For more comprehensive options to configure Chromebooks, IT should consider enterprise mobility management products such as VMware AirWatch.
One of the restrictions of a Chromebook remote desktop is that the client device does not offer a full operating system. Relatively few VDI products have fully native Clients for Chromebooks. Both Citrix Receiver and VMware Horizon Client are available for Chromebooks, but there aren't nearly as many client options as a Windows laptop. This is far less of an issue than in the past since most VDI vendors offer an HTML5 client option and these usually perform very well on Chromebooks.
In my testing, I preferred the VMware Horizon View HTML Access over the VMware Horizon Client. The VMware Native Client runs in full screen only, so users can't access other Chrome tabs or applications until they close the View client. This defeats one of the main attractions of using a Chromebook, which is the ability to run a corporate desktop alongside corporate and personal web apps.
Low-cost Chromebook pros and cons
One of the big selling points of Chromebooks is that they get everything from the cloud. It took less than five minutes from opening the box to access my Chromebook remote desktop. This fast time to value is beneficial for highly mobile employees, particularly those in far-flung places such as New Zealand, where I live. I didn't have a huge choice of Chromebooks at my local appliance store, but I was able to take one home immediately. This makes replacing a staff member's device much simpler and means less downtime if a device is lost or destroyed. At $200, a Chromebook isn't a big purchase if the employee needs to pay and then expense claim.
The first downside to a low-cost Chromebook is that it's nothing more than adequate. The keyboards and touch pads aren't great and the screens are fairly basic. They aren't particularly slim or light laptops, either. The 11-inch HP Chromebook that I am using is fairly representative. It is larger in every dimension than an 11-inch MacBook Air, although lighter and much cheaper.
Outside of Chromebooks, there aren't a lot of other thin clients with 3G or 4G wireless capabilities. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the usual wireless options. Google also sells premium Chromebooks, but since they cost more than $1,000, organizations can't treat them as disposable.
Chromebooks can serve a useful role during a transition from Windows applications to more web-based applications. IT can make legacy Windows apps available in a VDI tab with web applications in other tabs. The Chromebook is ideal as a near-disposable thin client -- minimal local data, quick to deploy and low cost -- or as a mobile VDI client for fleets of users. Chromebooks could also be a good "Plan B" as a VDI client, in case unexpected events render an employee's usual thin client unavailable.
Do Chromebooks have a place in the enterprise?
How VMware improved graphics on Chromebooks
Video demo: App remoting via HTML5 to a Chromebook