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Chromebooks: The Next Frontier

If you haven't either used or experienced Chromebooks firsthand by now, you soon will. Chromebooks are the next frontier in IT management and support, and they're coming soon to a network near you. The primary reasons for the soon-to-be widespread adoption of the humble Chromebook are cost, flexibility, security, and portability. But most of those reasons are the "business" reasons driving adoption. Only their built-in security has any meaning for those of us who don't count beans. In short, for you as system administrators, the Chromebook means that the days of desktop chaos are history.

Yes, Chromebooks are secure, and that's good news for you and your users alike. If you perform a port scan against a Chromebook, you'll only waste your time. There are no exposed ports.

Back in 2011, before Chromebooks gathered any steam at all, I asked Kevin Mitnick, computer security consultant and hacker, which operating system he considers to be secure, and he told me, "I don't know of any secure OS. In the past eight years, I've had 100% success at penetration testing on all of them. Wait, Chrome OS; Chrome OS is the most secure because of its very limited attack vector – there's just nothing to exploit."

But other than security, what does a Chromebook and the Chrome OS have to offer you or your users?

The list of answers is long – long, like Chromebook battery life. Some Chromebooks have batteries that can last in excess of eight hours. Most have a battery life in the four to five hour range. There's a tradeoff in weight vs. battery life. You can't pack a lot of cells into an ultraportable that you want to weigh in at a mere three pounds. Generally speaking, Chromebooks are inexpensive, as most stay within the US$200 to $300 range.

But perhaps the best feature of all is that the Chrome OS is web-based. If a user knows how to use a web browser, then she is already a Chromebook expert. All apps are simply shortcuts to web sites or local HTML pages. There's no wondering where your apps are, where your data is, or how to install an application. Chromebooks free the user and the system administrator to do something other than fret over a constant barrage of problems and trouble tickets.

And for the naysayers in the crowd, you now have web access to Microsoft Office applications via Outlook.com. Additionally, you have Google Drive and Google Docs. Dropbox works with Chrome OS, as do other web-based services and cloud-oriented applications.

But what if someone steals a user's Chromebook? Couldn't the thief gain access to a user's data or network information?

Because the underlying Chrome OS is Linux-based, it is difficult, if not impossible, to do so. For example, as a standard user, you can't see anyone else's files, even if you log in to the same computer. User passwords are masked by /etc/shadow, and user data is protected by Unix-style permissions.

The only way to gain root access is to tell the Chromebook that you want root access by wiping out all of the local user data. Sure, you basically get a "rooted" Chromebook by switching to "Developer Mode," but you also destroy any user data in the process. But good advice for any computer goes for Chromebooks as well: Don't save data locally. Use an external USB disk, an SD card, a cloud service, or a content management system (CMS).

Chromebooks are the next devices due to arrive in your business network that you'll have to manage. Fortunately, this one is a breath of fresh air. Chromebooks and the Chrome OS are so advanced and trouble-free, you'll think that someone has taken the "vice" out of device. Someone has.

Ken Hess * ADMIN Senior Editor