One user's path to a Chromebook enterprise

Auberge Resorts exec explains the logic, tools and issues involved in shift to Chrome OS and Google Apps for Business

Microsoft's dominance in business may be mammoth but it isn't absolute, as Tim Dickson, the director of technology at Auberge Resorts, has found.

Dickson is leading a multi-year migration to Chromebooks and Google Apps for Business for the 800 internal users at the resort and hotel provider.

There are two standout elements to this migration.

First, it wasn't a big bang effort. It began gradually in 2010 and has evolved with user acceptance. The effort will continue along for some time.

Also, it has now become a top to bottom migration, a decision made only in the last six months, which includes replacing Windows machines with Chromebooks.

Some business users are switching over to Google Apps, while fewer have so far started on a migration to Chromebooks, which accounted for 1% of the total worldwide PC market in 2013. Many of the larger deployments of Chromebooks to date have been at schools, where the devices are seen as a better option for students than tablets.

Auberge's migration isn't simple.

The mid-sized business has run a Windows environment with industry-specific legacy applications from vendors who weren't ready for a migration to the latest Windows operating systems, let alone a cloud-based environment.

In 2010, about the same time Google released its first Chromebook computers, Dickson said the firm was rethinking its technology direction. At the time, It was running XP and needed to get off that platform before Microsoft stopped supporting it in 2014. The effort to move on from XP was complicated because critical legacy app vendors at that point didn't have a path to Windows 7.

Dickson was interested in Google Apps, and had an earlier version of Chromebooks, the CR-48, but his initial focus was on Google's Gmail. The business needed to unify its communications systems, then fragmented by its various properties, and Gmail became the way to do it.

"That was a great first step, but over time we starting utilizing other Google services, Docs and hangouts," said Dickson. For most required tasks, Google's hosyted word processing and spreadsheet apps worked well, as users discovered. Auberge began building templates for the Apps environment, and ultimately migrated its documents to Google Drive.

The business backed the move because of the pricing, which was substantially lower than what they were paying for the Windows-based operation, said Dickson.

The hard part of the migration involved the legacy apps. In the Chrome OS world, HTML5 is a requirement for all applications and "in the hospitality world, this is almost a non-existent solution," said Dickson.

To get around that problem, Auberge used terminal services and an ThinRDP HTML5 wrapper. Users connect to the legacy apps via their Chromebook browser.

For security on Google Drive, IT adopted CloudLock, which can show how documents are being shared and who has had access to them. It also scans documents for things like Social Security numbers, and then takes action if policies aren't followed.

Another tool is Backupify. One problem with Google Apps is user deletion; if a user deletes a file Google will hold the deleted file for 30 days. Backupify will have a copy.

Chromebooks are being deployed by the hotelier as upgrades to Windows machines. Dickson expects a Chromebook rollout to occur over some time and, except for a few machines running applications such as Adobe's Creative Cloud, he expects a complete transition.

The decision to move to completely to Chrome OS was helped by improvements in Google Drive, he said.

In terms of Chromebook hardware, Dickson said he would like to see more laptops designed for business users, but perhaps not as pricy as Google's high-end Pixel model. When in the office, Chromebook users at his enterprise connect to desktop monitors.

For Dickson, the Chrome OS is a near "read only OS" that eliminates vulnerabilities and helps centralize management.

The company will eventually migrate away from legacy apps that now require a terminal-server approach, and while the environment may be mostly cloud, Auberge may run it in a private cloud.

"I strongly believe that the platform of tomorrow is HTML5 and the evolution of the web rather than building applications to a specific OS," said Dickson.

Operating systems, he added, "are becoming obsolete. As more vendors realize the future, the pain points will slowly diminish".

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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