‘Chrome OS’ on any device: Deploying CloudReady in the enterprise

While devices running CloudReady OS aren’t true Chromebooks, they offer an attractive option for enterprise use. Here’s how to deploy and manage CloudReady devices at your organization.

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Whether you’ve been transitioning applications to the cloud over the years or were forced there quickly in 2020, you might be considering deploying Chromebooks to your users. Their lower cost is especially attractive if you’re trying to provide devices for a boom in remote workers.

But before you settle on Chromebooks, consider all your options. One alternative is to use the CloudReady OS from Neverware, which is now part of Google itself. You can use all CloudReady devices, or mix them with official Chromebooks.

To back up a bit, CloudReady is a Chrome OS-like operating system that you can install on any computer, basically allowing you to turn old devices into de facto Chromebooks. CloudReady is built on Google's open-source Chromium OS, so it offers a very similar experience to what users get on Chromebooks, with a few notable exceptions: you cannot access the Google Play Store or run Android apps, as you can within the official Chrome OS.

CloudReady has a few strong advantages over Chromebooks for enterprise use. While Chromebooks have a notoriously short support window, devices running CloudReady get software updates more or less indefinitely. And with CloudReady you have freedom to choose the device: install it on brand-new machines, bring life to older devices where the lower specs can still easily run the lightweight OS, or even employ the OS for other custom needs like digital signage, kiosks, and point-of-sale devices.

Like Chromebooks, CloudReady-based devices are likely not a good option if your users need quick native access to Windows applications on the device, although there are some workarounds like using virtual machines inside CloudReady or connecting via remote desktop to a Windows machine. CloudReady is designed for users who primarily need access to the internet. It’s like having only the Google Chrome web browser on a device — which is all some workers need.

Here’s what you need to know to deploy and manage CloudReady in your company.

The CloudReady editions

Neverware offers three editions or licenses for its  OS:

The Home edition is totally free and lacks any management compatibility for IT teams, but it does include automatic security and feature updates. You might consider it for yourself at home or load it on a few devices to test the basic user experience of the OS in the office.

The Education edition is designed for schools and other learning environments, includes support, and is compatible with Chrome Management and the Google Admin console. Basic pricing is $20 per device annually and a one-time fee of $30 if using the Chrome Education Management functionality so the device can be managed via the Google Admin console. Neverware offers additional pricing schemes for the OS license.

The Enterprise edition is designed for businesses and other organizations, includes support (including for deployment and configuration), and is compatible with Chrome Management and the Google Admin console. The pricing is $49 per device annually for the OS, plus $50 annually if using the Chrome Enterprise Management functionality so the device can be managed via the Google Admin console.

Neverware offers free trials of the Education and Enterprise editions, but keep in mind that the end-user OS experience is virtually the same as the Home edition. The free trial would give you access to the Neverware admin portal, but the real management functionality comes from the Google Admin console. Neverware doesn’t include those licenses in the trial, but Google separately offers a 30-day free trial of the Chrome Enterprise Upgrade for up to 50 devices.

CloudReady system requirements

Neverware provides a searchable list of certified computer models that are compatible with CloudReady. Although you can install CloudReady on other devices, they aren’t supported or guaranteed to work with the OS.

Since CloudReady is a lightweight OS, it doesn’t require much hardware power. It’s installable on most new and old x86 hardware, including laptops, desktops, and all-in-ones. Just 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage could suffice for the OS. There are no hard CPU and graphics requirements, but according to Neverware, components made prior to 2007 will likely result in a poor experience. Of course, think of the user experience: the better the hardware, the faster the OS will go.

When installing CloudReady onto old machines, consider the age and health of the hardware before spending the time putting it into production and relying on the older hardware to be reliable and practicable for your users. Consider running tests on the storage drive and RAM, and test the battery life for laptops. You might also consider upgrading spinning hard drives to solid state drives (SSDs) to help increase performance and life. Also, for laptops, think about the weight and size. Older devices as you know can be bigger and heavier than the new thin and light laptops.

Mass deployment of CloudReady

If you are loading the CloudReady OS onto more than 100 devices, you can look into automating the OS installation. See the Neverware documentation for more info. The company provides step-by-step directions for deploying via Microsoft Windows Deployment Services (WDS) or Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM). You can also use other systems, such as Altiris, Symantec Ghost, and FOG.

Installing CloudReady with a USB stick

If you’re installing CloudReady on fewer than 100 machines, Neverware recommends the standard manual method of OS installation using a bootable USB drive. The company offers a Windows-based CloudReady USB Maker application that’s ready to go, and for Mac OS or Chrome OS it offers installer images. Neverware provides a public download of the USB Maker application for the Home edition, but for the Enterprise edition, you download the application from your Neverware admin portal.

Most USB flash drives will work with CloudReady, but there are some SanDisk drives that have issues with the bootable drive creation or OS install process. Thus, if you can, use another brand for the bootable drives.

cloudready 01 usb maker IDG

Using the USB Maker application makes the bootable USB drive creation process quick and easy.

Before the USB Maker application writes the OS installation files to the drive, you’re asked for your Neverware admin login credentials. Thus, devices you install CloudReady on will automatically be enrolled under your Neverware account. You only need to make one USB drive, but you can make as many as you’d like to simultaneously prep multiple devices.

Once you have the USB drive loaded with the CloudReady OS installer, you stick it in the device and boot to the drive. Some devices will boot to USB devices automatically; with others you’ll have to bring up the boot menu right after powering on or access the BIOS screens to change the boot settings.

The installer GUI and process are simple. First you see two warnings that the OS install process deletes all the data from the device’s storage. Then main install process should take less than 20 minutes (it only took me about 4 minutes on an 8-year-old laptop), and then it shuts down the device. Then you can remove the USB installer drive and power the device back on.

When you start up the device, you’ll see the CloudReady welcome screen and be prompted to connect to Wi-Fi if the device isn’t hardwired into the network. Then you must sign into a Google account before you can use the CloudReady OS at all. You could log in to the end-user’s Google account for them, but remember that you may have to deal with a 2-Step Verification prompt if two-factor authentication is enabled on their account.

Regardless of who logs into the end-user’s Google account, there’s one very important step to remember: in order to manage the device with the Google Admin console in the future, you must log in via the Enterprise Enrollment screen. On the main login screen, click More Options and select Enterprise Enrollment. Alternatively, from the main login screen you can press Ctrl-Alt-E to bring up the Enterprise Enrollment screen. If you don’t log in this way, the device will only be enrolled into your CloudReady admin portal and not the Google Admin console.

Managing the CloudReady devices

The first and most basic enterprise management system for CloudReady is the Neverware admin portal. It provides OS license-level management and other metrics. You can view a list of devices that you’ve applied the OS license to along with their names, MAC addresses, serial numbers, CloudReady versions, and license and support expiration dates.

cloudready 02 neverware admin portal IDG

The Neverware admin shows the basic details for devices that are enrolled in your account. (Click image to enlarge it.)

There’s not much management functionality offered by the Neverware admin portal, but if you’re going to use the Google Admin console for more management functionality, you can enable the Mandatory Enterprise Enrollment (MEE) feature on the Neverware admin portal to restrict the device’s management via your particular domain.

The real management is realized by enrolling devices into the Google Admin console, the same GUI you might have used for Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) or Google services. As discussed earlier, however, enrolling CloudReady devices into the console requires purchasing a separate license per device: either the general Chrome Enterprise or the Chrome Education upgrade license.

cloudready 03 google admin chrome manage IDG

The main Chrome management screen on the Google Admin console. (Click image to enlarge it.)

You can manage Google Chrome browsers, which applies to any user devices including Windows, Chrome OS, CloudReady, and mobile devices. But there are also settings and management functions unique to Chrome devices — those loaded with Chrome OS or CloudReady.

cloudready 04 google admin devices IDG

Just some of the device specific settings you can configure on the Google Admin console. (Click image to enlarge it.)

If you already have Google Admin console access for Google Workspace or other Google services, you can preview all these settings without having CloudReady or the Google upgrade licenses. You’ll just get a pop-up on the screens where it requires a license to actually use the settings.

Looking ahead

After its acquisition by Google last December, Neverware published a FAQ outlining its plans for CloudReady moving forward. “Over the long term, CloudReady will become an official Chrome OS offering, and existing customers will be upgraded seamlessly as that happens,” the company wrote. In the short term, little will change, Neverware said, emphasizing that it’s committed to supporting and maintaining its customers.

Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer — keep up with his writings on Facebook or Twitter. He’s also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, providing a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service; Wi-Fi Surveyors, providing RF site surveying; and On Spot Techs, providing general IT services.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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