Firefighters save cash with Chrome OS

It cost Fire and Rescue NSW half the price of a Microsoft Windows desktop to buy a Google Chromebox for each of its 339 stations across New South Wales, according to Richard Host, IT director of Fire and Rescue NSW.

As part of an IT project to digitise firefighters’ daily paper record of events, Fire and Rescue bought the Chrome OS devices in 2012 and finished deploying them last year, Host told Computerworld Australia.

So happy with the Chromeboxes is the public safety agency that its IT director is now considering buying more to replace existing Windows infrastructure.

Fire and Safety purchased the Chromeboxes to replace the firefighters’ leather-bound “occurrence book,” in which fire stations recorded everything that happened in a given day, including phone calls to the station and all comings and goings from the station.

The agency developed a software replacement, but during development realised it would need new hardware to support the electronic book.

“Because the system would have to be accessed at a moment’s notice, it wasn’t satisfactory to use one of the existing PCs that someone could be using,” said Host. “We knew that we that we would need to put another PC in every one of our 339 fire stations.”

Because the new software was Web-based, Host realised it was not necessary to buy another PC loaded with expensive software, he said.

“We wanted to do something that made sense,” said Host. “I did not want to have to go and buy nearly 400 additional Windows computers with all the necessary Microsoft licensing and software when all I needed was a Web browser.”

“We looked around and came across the Chromebox.”

Fire and Rescue also considered buying thin clients or computers running a different Linux-based OS, “but the Chromebox was a slick solution literally out of the box that just worked perfectly,” he said.

Host said there was “a little bit of apprehension” given the newness and thus far low adoption in Australia of Chrome OS, but the Chromebox performed well in tests and Host trusted the Google brand.

The public safety organisation opted for the desktop form factor of the Chromebox rather than the laptop style of the Chromebook because the firefighters required a large display and “something that looked and felt like a PC,” said Host.

“They don’t care that it’s a Chromebox and not a PC because what they’ve got is a Chrome Web browser and that’s all they need.”

Choosing Chrome OS has saved money and provided greater speed and reliability, he said.

Host estimated that the agency immediately saved 50 per cent by choosing Chromeboxes over a Windows-based alternative.

“At least,” he stressed. “Probably more.”

“You save 50 per cent just in the upfront cost and then you save after that [with] all the licensing software you don’t have to buy.”

The Chromeboxes are very quick, said Host. Their solid-state hard drives mean they boot up in a few seconds, he said. That flash-based memory and the fact that there are no other applications running combine for a “noticeably faster” browsing experience compared to a Windows PC, he added.

The Chrome devices are also more dependable because they don’t have “five fans and a spinning hard drive,” he said. “We’ve had them out there for at least a year and the feedback I’m getting from our support areas is that they are considerably more reliable.”

While Chrome OS devices typically rely on a good Internet connection to access apps like Gmail and Google Docs, Host said this is not a concern for Fire and Rescue since its electronic occurrence book resides on the agency’s private network and the firefighters are not using any Chrome apps.

Host said he’s now considering expanding Fire and Rescue NSW’s use of Chromeboxes. “Due to the success of this, we are now favourably predisposed to potentially replacing some PCs with this solution.”

It could lead to a situation where the firefighters access Microsoft software through a Chrome browser, he said.

“Almost all of Fire and Rescue’s applications are now Web-based,” he said. “For instance, we put our email into the Microsoft cloud and our firefighters will soon be accessing Microsoft Office through Office 365.”

“Everything that they need to access is through a Web browser. Now, if all they need is a Web browser, then they don’t need a costly PC, do they?”

However, the agency has no plans to adopt Google’s laptop-style Chromebooks, he said.

Fire and Rescue is one of the first Australian organisations outside of the education sector to take up Chrome OS in a significant way. Woolworths has also recently revealed a major deployment, with Chromebooks expected to replace 85 per cent of all business PCs at the retailer.

“Fire and Rescue is a very innovative IT place to work,” Host said .

“We’re doing lots and lots of firsts. We’re not set in our ways. We’re happy to adopt technologies that make sense and we don’t mind if we’re first.”

“The better we can make our systems, then the safer our communities will be.”

Host added that he has received calls from other public safety agencies asking how the Chrome deployment has gone.

“There’s keen interest particularly in similar organisations that have large PC fleet and are looking at how can they save money.”

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of a dystopian novel about surveillance. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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