Orlando tries out 600 Chromebooks

The Chrome OS-based laptops may fit into city's cloud strategy

The city of Orlando, Fla. has deployed 600 Chromebooks to employees and the early verdict is that they're low maintenance devices.

The Chromebook is relatively lightweight and easy to set up -- and help desk calls from users have so far been mainly about lost power cords and battery charging issues.

But the Chromebook is far from perfect. The device doesn't support all of the city's legacy applications or Java. For now, they're being used as part of a broader study of a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) strategy by the city.

Orlando has been using Google Apps for the last year and a half; Google provided the Chromebooks for free as a pilot. The city, in turn, offered them to mobile workers who didn't necessarily have a laptop, such as firefighters.

The pilot program is part of an overarching strategy by Orlando's IT department to anticipate customer needs.

"What we are doing with our innovation teams is trying to stay a little bit ahead of our clients and their requests," said Rosa Akhtarkhavari, Orlando's CIO. The city hopes to "research the technology that is going to be able to allow us give them the solution they need."

To be useful, a Chromebook has to be connected to a network. It's designed for cloud-based environments and centralized administration.

To make them adaptable to an enterprise environment, Orlando has been evaluating VMware View, a desktop virtualization product, and Ericom's new AccessNow product for VMware View. AccessNow is intended to run in any HTML5-compatible Web browser, like the one on the Chromebook. It allows users to connect to a desktop computer.

"Once they get to environment they are familiar with then they can really express how comfortable they are with it," said Marvin Smith, Orlando's senior systems administrator.

Orlando officials made it clear that they are still evaluating the Chromebook along with their VDI approach. But the one thing that does seem clear is the Chromebook's potential to reduce IT support costs -- "if it meets all our needs," Akhtarkhavari said.

The Chromebook is also easy to travel with and starts up quickly. "If I just need to stay connected for emergencies, I take my Chrome," said Akhtarkhavari, who is also using a MiFi device for connection. But when traveling for business, she said she would still take her laptop.

Orlando plans to continue to use the Google-made Chromebooks "unless they become an expense for us from a maintenance and upkeep [perspective]," said Akhtarkhavari. "And honestly, it would be hard to pull them back to the people we gave them to. We would have to give them something else."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS 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.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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