Can virtualization drive Chromebook deployments in the enterprise?

Citrix, VMware seek to fill enterprise software gap on Chromebooks

Virtualization is helping make Google Chrome OS a potential alternative for enterprises that have traditionally been Windows shops.

Earlier this year, Google scored a major customer win in Australia when Woolworths announced that Chrome OS devices will account for 85 per cent of its business devices by the end of a technology transformation at the supermarket.

At the time, Woolworths said it could not make the transition without virtualization. The company performed analysis of what apps they needed and worked with Citrix to be sure they were compatible with Chromebooks.

“Embracing a Chrome device strategy in an enterprise setting has been made possible with recent advances in Citrix with its Web-based delivery technology, enabling Woolworths to make the transition from legacy thick client application access to cloud like browser based delivery,” said then-acting CIO of Woolworths, Damon Rees.

In addition to Citrix, VMware has also announced virtual desktop support for Chrome OS devices.

Virtualization can be a useful tool for enterprises who want to deploy Chrome OS devices without giving up Windows software, said Telsyte analyst Rodney Gedda. But he warned that results can be mixed depending on the applications needed by the organisation.

“Like the early days of the iPad, enterprises resort to virtualization software to use more traditional Windows-based applications on non-Windows endpoints,” Gedda told Computerworld Australia.

“For many applications, that works well. For others it doesn’t work as well. Anything to do with virtualization is going to be some sort of compromise from the native system. It really depends on how well the applications play in a virtual environment.”

Virtualization can be used as a transitional tool as the enterprise brings in more Web-based apps through software updates or replacements, said Gedda. The trend toward mobility and a post-PC world has driven more software developers to build Web-based versions of their apps, he noted.

But virtualization can also be a permanent part of the enterprise since it brings benefits including security and easy deployment across multiple kinds of devices, he said.

Virtualization has played a role in Google winning enterprise customers, Google Enterprise managing director for Australia, Kevin Ackhurst, said in a recent interview.

“Some people have this idea that there’s a reduced level of functionality with it, and yes there are some things that you can’t do on a Chromebook that you can do on a PC or a Mac,” said Ackhurst. “But for 90 per cent of the stuff that you need, you can typically do that.”

For the remaining 10 per cent, Google has worked with Citrix and VMware to develop products providing Chrome users remote access to conventional desktop environments, he said.

“You don’t have to think about just replacing existing applications, but you can have the investment that you’ve made in terms of SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Office … and still access all of those things using your Chromebook.”

Citrix has worked with Google and OEMs to test available Chromebooks to are capable of handling virtualization, according to Todd Terbeek, Citrix senior director of business development cloud and desktop alliances. The vendor has a program called Citrix Ready and lists compatible devices on its website.

For existing Citrix customers, bringing their operating environment to the Chromebook is as simple as connecting to any other device, said Terbeek, who leads the Citrix side of the company's Chrome OS partnership with Google.

“Things have really taken off in the last year or so,” he said.

“As more of the OEMs have started creating Chromebooks and have started creating hardware that's even more focused on enterprise with Chromebooks, we've started to see a lot more interest from our customers.”

Education remains a primary market for Chromebooks, but Terbeek said other industries are taking notice. “We’re hearing a lot of people tell us they like the total cost-of-ownership around the Chromebook and that management is easy.”

Enterprise customers also like the security provided by the Chromebook, since no data needs to be stored on the device itself, he said. “The app actually is living on the server in the data centre and they're just accessing it through the receiver in the browser.”

Gedda said that while some organisations are embracing more Web-based apps, Chrome OS is still held back by the fact that many enterprises rely heavily on native Windows apps.

Having a strong will to change and embrace new technologies in the organisation is important to making any operating system change, the analyst said.

An enterprise that is still using Windows XP and has to invest in an OS upgrade anyway might be more open to trying a new platform like Chrome OS, he added.

“It’s really going to depend on the type of savings that the organisation can expect, the amount of work they’d have to do to get there and the suitability of the apps to run in a virtual environment.”

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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