Appirio’s 4 Month Chromebook Pilot – We Rate It a “Go”

May 25, 2011 Appirio

Glenn Weinstein, CTO, Appirio

Here at Appirio, we’re wrapping up a four month pilot of Google’s CR-48 Chromebook. We announced back in December 2010 that Google had selected us as one of 11 companies, including American Airlines, Intercontinental Hotels and Kraft, to try out this exciting new concept. Of the 11 pilot sites, Appirio was the only company to issue a CR-48 to every single employee. We also equipped our headquarters office with CR-48s serving as guest check-in, presentation machines, and Internet access kiosks.

Much has been written about the CR-48, intended as a beta device to test out the concept of “operating-system-as-a-service” – a machine dedicated solely to supporting the Chrome OS, which in turn is mostly dedicated to running the Chrome browser along with various apps and extensions. Our focus wasn’t so much on reviewing the CR-48 as a consumer-ready device, or even cataloguing its various features, as much as evaluating the readiness of the overall concept of an essentially browser-only machine for the enterprise, extending the cloud computing concept all the way to the desktop.

Admittedly, Appirio isn’t your average company. We started Appirio in 2006 with a vow to never own a server, so our IT infrastructure is built exclusively on top of public cloud providers such as Salesforce.com, Google Apps, and Amazon Web Services. Companies born during the new cloud era – roughly 2005 and later – have the luxury of a clean sheet of paper on which to design their IT systems. A company founded in 2008, Groupon, has followed the same path we did. You might argue that cloud-era companies such as Appirio and Groupon are more predisposed than a typical company towards making a concept like the Chromebook successful. Nevertheless, we believe our experience is instructive, because it may help answer a rhetorical question that smart CIOs periodically ask themselves: “if I could redesign our systems from scratch today, would I rebuild the same architecture we have today?”

We had fun issuing the CR-48s, handing them out as “room drops” at our annual company offsite in late January in Napa, CA. I had to actually tell our marketing team that we should not treat them as employee gifts, but rather as an officially issued piece of IT equipment. Everyone was getting caught up in the excitement! They went to all job functions – not just consultants, but operations, sales, marketing, engineering, HR, and Finance. We kept some additional inventory on hand for new hires who joined Appirio after the offsite, and more than a few job seekers inquired as to whether they’d be entitled to a CR-48 if they got the position.

One huge advantage we had immediately with our Chromebooks was the lack of a corporate network, firewall, or VPN. With all of our systems in the public cloud, we’ve never found a need for these expensive, non-value-add technologies. Google is actively working to broaden VPN support in the Chromebook, but any existing limitations didn’t affect us. Everyone was able to log into our corporate systems with no hassles on the very first night.

We asked each employee to use the CR-48 throughout their work week, reverting back to their company-issued Dell or MacBook Pros as needed, and to note issues and observations on our internal Google Sites-based wiki. After 90 days, we conducted a company-wide survey to gather feedback and gauge usage.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that even after three months, nearly 60% of employees were still using their CR-48s at least a few times a week. Survey respondents reported overwhelming satisfaction with use of the CR-48 for Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs, which are a huge part of how we run our business. More than 85% of Appirians rated the CR-48’s form factor “just right,” and 90% thought the CR-48 demonstrated the viability of a notebook computer based around a browser and Internet connectivity.

The biggest gripes centered around the hardware itself, including the well-documented trackpad issues and underpowered CPU, as well as lack of a backlit keyboard. The next-generation Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer should resolve these issues.

The primary software gaps that were mentioned included:

  • Lack of a desktop sharing (e.g. GoToMeeting) or virtualization solution (to be remedied by Citrix Receiver)
  • Easy-to-use screen grab software like SnagIt (although the Aviary extension was good replacement)
  • Access to unique client-side tools like the Salesforce.com Data Loader (the Citrix tool could help here)
  • A developer IDE akin to Eclipse
  • A more robust Cloud Print facility
  • PowerPoint (Google Presentations isn’t quite up to snuff yet)
  • Offline access to docs (coming back from Google soon, we hear)

From an IT perspective, the Chromebooks were a huge hit, proving the potential impact they can ultimately have. We spend around $200 per month per employee to provide a laptop, software, anti-virus protection, top-level vendor care packages, and IT help desk costs. Typical analyst studies peg the total cost of ownership for a typical enterprise as considerably higher. By contrast, Google announced enterprise pricing for Chromebooks at $28 per user per month – which includes software updates and even physical maintenance. This is one reason we’re looking forward to adding Chromebooks to our Google Apps reseller package for our own customers.

But the soft savings may be even more significant. The Chromebook concept represents a dramatic simplification of IT. Despite owning no servers, Appirio IT is still burdened with some physical hardware requirements, including periodic hard drive imaging; helping employees with hardware and software issues; and security concerns around lost laptops. Chromebooks remove these burdens, allowing IT to focus more time, effort, and expertise at solving business problems. This is a natural extension of the benefit of cloud computing, which transfers the complexity of the data center and server-side software from internal IT to third party vendors. The cloud doesn’t have to end at the server; Chromebooks stretch the cloud all the way to the desktop.

Google stopped by our San Mateo, CA office a few weeks ago and recorded a video documenting Appirio’s experience with the Chromebooks and interviewing a few of our employees. The video is apparently a YouTube hit, with 15,000 views in the first week!

I’ll close out this blog post with actual, unedited quotes from Appirians responding to our internal survey, for your reading pleasure.

  • “In terms of benefits of the ultra-secure operating system, there isn’t much of an operating system to exploit. The limited complexity makes it easier to ensure there aren’t any gaps for would be attackers.” – IT Manager
  • “I thought I’d miss my big brawny laptop, but my Chromebook made me realize how little I actually use of that machine.” – Solutions Marketing Manager
  • “I found the Chrome notebook to be my “iPad”. A total consumer device. It floated around the house with me and let me easily access our two main systems, Salesforce and Google. I also used it at a few conferences where I wanted quick startup and guest login. Found that it worked beautifully for that and generated a bit of interest too. It saved me a few times in coffee shops that did not have wireless.” – Online Marketing Manager
  • “At first I was very skeptical and thought I would never use it. What I’ve found is that I will take the Chrome notebook to places I would never bring my laptop. While waiting for my kids events I answer emails, code SFDC. I’ve taken it to the top of a mountain, and in the corral. Plus, my family loves it too.” – Senior Consultant
  • “It’s my go to weapon for couch computing.” – Consultant
  • “Companies will not have to worry about important data being stolen if the laptop is lost. The data is stored on the cloud. Also, this notebook should be cheaper to use and maintain than other types of hardware.” – Senior Consultant
  • “The Chrome OS gives usability improvements to the user – no longer is a user crippled by a lost/stolen/broken PC…just drop a new Chrome device, login and you’re good to go! This is a huge disruption to the enterprise.” – Client Manager
  • “Love the simplicity and flexibility of having everything in the cloud, with nothing on the laptop itself. I see the cost of the hardware dropping dramatically while at the same time the performance will improve, which makes this a very compelling solution for large enterprises.” – Practice Director

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