Chromebooks in the datacenter
Chromebooks have a role in datacenters. Colleagues call them “consumable keyboard machines” in recognition of their modest prices. Their combination of functionality pushes them to the front of the list of “grab and go” alternatives for such reviewers as Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, a fan of both the ARM-powered Samsung and its somewhat more potent and pricey Intel-technology “big brother“.
That’s not the only conclusion possible about the Chromebook, of course; reactions to current releases range from the enthusiasm of Matt Baxter-Reynolds, who finds “the Chromebook is fantastic“, to the reserve of Ron Miller, who concludes they’re just not for him. Miller admires several Chromebook features, but concludes only an impoverished student should select one as a primary personal machine. Somewhere in the middle is Rob Pegoraro, waiting a long time for a “simple, cheap Internet terminal”, who decides a Chromebook can “plausibly replace a low-end laptop”.
All these reviewers focus first on fitness for retail consumers, and how Chromebooks compare to such alternatives as conventional laptops, tablets, ultrabooks, and even netbooks. What I notice is that many of Chromebooks’ characteristics align well with the needs of administrators, network engineers, and other back-end information technology (IT) professionals.
Highlights from my own experience with Chromebooks include:
- battery life is closer to that of a tablet than a conventional laptop;
- automatic operating system (OS) maintenance is a relief;
- the on-board DisplayPort or HDMI jack makes connection to a projector or large screen convenient for all sorts of presentations; and
- built-in audio-video is good enough for quick teleconferences as well as playback of all sorts of performances and demonstrations.
The usual criticism of Chromebooks is that they’re conventional laptops, except they do less. That’s largely true. They hit a relatively “sweet spot” for that less, though–not having to juggle anti-virus installations and security patches is a welcome advantage for many of us, including reviewer JR Raphael. There’s plenty I miss: I’m down to one browser from the usual four or five I like to keep at hand; I haven’t tried any of the work-arounds for Skype; I haven’t yet succeeded with OpenVPN, although I expect to soon; and I miss a handful of other applications even more rarely. I have a nice keyboard, a solid version of the Chrome browser, a usable
ssh (including key-based authentication), and a familiar Linux login, though, along with adequate hardware features, and these get me through most days.
I often use an older netbook; while I rely on its conventional desktop software and ease of installation of plugins and other add-ons, its keyboard is just cramped enough to make me uncomfortable. The netbook’s poky hardware also suffers in comparison to Chromebooks. While Chromebooks aren’t at all fast like a fully-rigged gaming host or analyst’s desktop, they’re fast enough for most administrative chores.
Chromebooks’ dependence on a network connection is an utter non-issue for me. Their off-line capabilities are adequate; I know several people initially wary of disconnected operation who tried it once, found how smoothly Chrome handles the off- and on-line transition, and now count on it routinely. Nearly all my DevOps work requires connection to a datacenter, anyway. When I’m doing desktop-focused programming, of course, I usually switch to a more mainstream rig.
My biggest hesitation about Chromebooks and Chromeboxes for general use is the hazard of reliance on Google. My colleague Tom Henderson has written on a few of the privacy and monopoly considerations of support of the Mountain View behemoth. For the moment, and for a majority of the circumstances that matter to me, Chromebooks remain my best choice. Their easy maintenance, low price, and keyboard-equipped hardware combinations work for me.
Chromebooks are almost certain to become even more competitive; they’ve shown a lot of improvement over the last year. The one most intriguing alternative, especially for those reluctant to leave so much of their data with Google, and undeterred by discouraging words from Acer President Jim Wong, is a Surface-with-keyboard. I’ll have more to say about that, this summer.