Thursday 5 April 2018

How to drop Windows apps on a Chromebook.

Here’s something to consider over a coffee: What does a Microsoft Windows computer actually do?

Since the majority of school computers in the UK run Windows and a lot of time and money is spent keeping those devices working you would hope it’s something pretty important.

Perhaps it’s keeping all of your files and data safe ?

That’s true but security and file storage is actually managed by the backroom server while file management is a standard feature of every mainstream operating system, just like printing and browsing the web. These are important functions but any desktop (or mobile) operating system could fulfil those roles. So what’s the answer ?

The fact is, you need a Windows computer to run Windows programs.

All the other stuff like virus protection, security patching, backup and all the fancy user interface features and dialogs just allow the operating system to run Windows programs in a secure and predictable manner.

It’s been a long time since the Windows operating system  itself added anything useful to the user experience (Minesweeper?). In fact the main challenge for the school administrator is to lock-down the desktop to ensure users have as little contact as possible with the underlying feature set.

I suspect the ideal configuration for a Windows desktop in schools would be a template of shortcuts linked to the main productivity apps with some additional icons for logging off and rebooting.

Even with this minimalist approach the network admin still has to deploy and update each application while making sure an installation of one application doesn't break all the others as well patching the underlying OS.

Over the last decade there have been multiple attempts to fix this problem including terminal services and VDI but in many respects they only make the problem worse. You have to add additional server hardware, manage even more instances of the operating system and, after all that effort, the local desktop doesn't even get the chance to do the one thing it's good at - which is running Windows programs.

Let’s be honest if you were starting from scratch you’d think of a better way of doing this.

So lets kick the bucket and think about what that alternative might look like might look like.

The local device would be lightweight, easily managed, simple to licence, fundamentally secure, self maintaining and provide the base functions of file management, print and web browsing.   The system should start quickly, present a security challenge and then simply act as a platform to launch the apps that you need to do your work done. In many respects you are describing Google’s Chrome OS, the operating system that runs on a Chromebook.

Alternatively this imaginary device could be running Windows 10 S mode which is basically a Windows 10 Pro with a simplified, locked-down configuration which also meets some of the criteria listed above,

Unfortunately the one feature that both operating systems lack is the ability to run the type of legacy Windows program that education uses on a day to day basis. Chrome OS is a non-starter for this purpose and in order to run a local copy of SmartNotebook or a specialised STEM program on Windows 10 S you have to upgrade to the Windows 10 Pro edition which takes us back to where we started.

On the face of it the problem seems unsolvable but there may be a solution on the horizon.

Purchase a Chromebook today and it can run any Android app from the Google Play Store. The Android Skype app knows nothing about Chrome OS and believes it’s running on fully featured Android stack (V6.0 Marshmallow).  In fact it’s a clever trick that makes use of technology commonly described as containers.

Containers allow the underlying OS to present itself in different ways to processes that it’s hosting. The idea is similar to machine virtualization but in this case it not the hardware that virtualized but the operating system kernel and for this reason is very lightweight and carries few additional overheads. This is how a Chromebook with only 4GB of memory can appear to run two operating systems at the same time. Another important feature of a container is that it ensures the isolation of the running processes which means it’s very secure.

So if containers can represent an Android run-time environment what else can they do?

Recent articles suggest that Chromebooks will soon have the ability to present Linux as a container which means that schools could safely access a range of open-source software rich in code development and media editing titles.

Which leads to the final point - could Chromebooks run a Windows application in a container?

The answer appears to be a qualified yes.
Recently Droplet technology announced a deployment package that can do just this. The hosted applications behaves exactly as it would if it were running in on a Windows operating system  - because it is.

All the technology runs locally and works without an active internet connection.  It’s not an emulation or a graphical offload, the application runs natively and is responsive and fully featured.

But let’s bring the conversation back to reality. If you have a school whose curriculum is based heavily on MS Office and locally installed Windows applications then your future is best served by the toolset provided by Microsoft.

But for schools moving towards SaaS the technical direction is often blocked by a dozen or so Windows programs that are central  to the curriculum. This is a problem that a container technology like Droplet could easily solve.

Eventually containers could be used to deploy applications across a range of OS types (including Windows) creating a true ‘run anywhere’ solution that doesn’t require a mass of backend server hardware.

There are still a number of problems to overcome, mainly around managing resources on a shared deployment but the future of local applications lies with containers. It’s a proven technology that underpins most cloud services and its about to make a splash in the mainstream market.

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