Using ChromeOS in a mid-sized company

While many Americans believe that the United States has all but stopped manufacturing goods on American soil, I’m charged with modernizing a facility that manufactures a majority of its products right here in North Carolina. Not just one or two products, but literally thousands and thousands of, in our case, automotive parts.

When I first came to the company where I’m currently employed, almost everyone had dumb terminals at their desk or near their workstation. We’re talking UNIX green screen dumb terminals that connected back to a RISC based mainframe. There were only a handful of PC’s, and those were mostly disconnected from any centralized system. Backups were made to ZIP disks (remember those?) and were the responsibility of individual employees.

I have had a tremendous amount of fun over the last 11+ years modernizing our facilities. We have close to half a million square feet of space. This includes administrative areas, but mostly warehouse and manufacturing spaces. You can’t expect to manage such a vast amount of space easily. Newer technologies that are expected from users, such as wi-fi, are among the hardest to get right in a facility this large. Once you do however, a whole new world opens up. What was previously a pipe dream is now possible.

With mobile devices and laptops now available for use company-wide, productivity is set to increase and so are expectations of how employees are allowed to do their jobs. Suddenly supervisors and users alike want the technology upgrades to benefit their departments directly. This means wireless (and real-time) inventory management for example (SEE THIS POST).

How does ChromeOS fit into all of this? A couple of years ago, ChromeOS wouldn’t have gained much traction and certainly not a decade ago. Today our environment is a mixture of devices. Some users have been assigned a mobile only device (order pickers or inventory managers for example) while others are assigned a traditional desktop/laptop running Windows. Within the traditional space, around half of our users are running a virtualized desktop environment (VMware Horizon View). Except for true power users (e.g. CAD applications), I expect to move all users to a virtualized desktop when they’re up for a system refresh.

Then we have a handful of employees that have been assigned a ChromeOS device (either a Chromebook or Chromebox). These are relatively light users and typically users with a specific task that does not require Windows to get the job done. I have a dozen or so applications that I’ve written that interface with our ERP system. This allows users to pull orders, manage inventory, do various types of lookups/reports, etc from a web only interface. Traditionally this applies to mobile users, but I’ve made the designs relatively responsive so they look great on a desktop environment as well.

If I have a choice to pay the Microsoft tax of ~$100/year per user for a VDI license (plus thin client hardware costs, VMware licensing, etc) or get a $250 Chromebook/Chromebox for the life of the device, what would logic tell me to do? This assuming apples are apples and that the user gets the same information either way and can get their job done as efficient (if not better) with the ChromeOS solution.

We’re a Google Apps house, several of our departmental applications live in the cloud per the software vendor’s offerings of a cloud-based solution, and we have the infrastructure to support cloud based devices (e.g. a 100Mbit egress/ingress pipe to the net with backup). Most users in our environment are a little resistant to any change in their workflow, but changes that I make are eventually embraced by most after users allow themselves time to get acquainted with the new.

The biggest obstacle to overcome has always been change (sometimes major) in the eyes of employees. Most have a routine…they wake up, brush their teeth, drive to work, clock-in, do the work that is expected of them, clock-out and go home to relax. Very few are in a position where creativity is key. We manufacture (largely) items that have been made before (we make restoration parts just like the original and in many cases using the same original tooling) and making those items require a certain degree of ‘routine’ mindedness. Those in creative positions, like myself, who are expected to drive have to make it a no brainer for employees to get onboard and ride with me.

For me, the future for IT is decentralized. Sure, there will always be physical infrastructure to some degree, but the support and the manner that users get work done will continue to decentralize. I’m betting my career on this notion and choosing to move our 150 or so employees so that they get on my bus. This, in my mind, is a no brainer move for both employees and the company. The cost savings alone are tremendous as is the ability to support such an infrastructure. Long are the days of having to be an expert at all things (e.g. Microsoft Exchange) as they have been replaced by ‘cloud’ providers like Google. It’s like hiring someone to be on-site with you. Big and small companies alike can understand the benefits of this, you just have to overcome any fear of privacy concerns…but then again, the NSA likely archives everything you and your company do anyway.

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