The Chromebook, runt of the laptop litter, cheap hardware and a limited OS. Strangely though, the Chromebook I’ve been trialing has become the most unexpectedly useful network administration tool I’ve come across. Find out why.
I work across a number of sites and the majority of my work involves three things: Using Remote Desktop to manage Windows servers; using an SSH client to troubleshoot networked devices such as wireless access points and switches; and lastly managing the productivity of my department.
The first two on that list, and the nature of work across multiple sites, means for a long time I’ve craved a device which is “instant on”, has a full-size keyboard, and most importantly doesn’t mind being thrown on the back seat of a car when I’m in a hurry.
I’ve tested all sorts of devices — laptops, netbooks, tablets with keyboards, tablets without keyboards, phones with serial adapters, and nothing has met my requirements. I want something that can get me to an SSH prompt fast or Remote Desktop to an Windows server without waiting.
People have tried to convince me that a laptop running Ubuntu or another Linux variant will work great. Maybe I’m just impatient, but even a really well optimised desktop operating system still has lag and a waiting time when coming out of sleep. Add to the fact that a good laptop is at least £500 and you immediately loose the “back seat of the car” test.
So a few weeks ago, without any of the above in my mind, on a whim I bought the Samsung Chromebook 2012. Working in education there’s a gentle but audible buzz about Chromebooks and I thought it was time I dipped my toe in the Google experience for myself.
Outside of education Chromebooks are a tough sell. They are entirely browser based, so they don’t run standard local applications, and apart from as a cheap home computer, Google has struggled to get Chromebooks into the enterprise.
My Chromebook arrived and after a few days of boundary pushing underneath the cheap, unnervingly flexible plastic shell I discovered a device that meet most of the requirements I set out above. Had I found my network admin holy chalice?!
With a few specialised web based applications the Chromebook transformed from “just a browser” to a suite of standard administrator’s tools within a lightweight, cheap, instant on, portable computer. The thing that makes this such a powerful combination is the same thing that makes the iPad so powerful but rarely gets mentioned: the power of Chromebook is not that the hardware is more powerful, or that it does a hundred more things that the best alternative, it’s that Chromebook makes the simple things so accessible.
The boot time of my Chromebook is five seconds, not that it matters because it’s rare that I turn off the device. From opening the lid to having a fully operational SSH prompt is less than a second. I cannot explain how liberating it is to pull up in the carat one of our sites, pull out my Chromebook, flip open the lid and immediately have full access to the internal network. That may seem trite, after all we’ve had laptops for a long time, but there’s something so immediate and faultless doing it with a Chromebook.
There’s no boot up, no stuttering or slowness, just immediate access. Yes, there are limitations, the Chrome Web Store is in its infancy but a number of developers are now pushing out some genuinely innovative software. More importantly, it’s software that I need to do my job.
Chromebook Software For The Network Administrator
Secure Shell is a browser based SSH client for Chrome which works really well for basic configuration. I’ve found it most useful for quickly configuring wireless access points, website admin tasks, and managing my Linux servers.
As you would expect from Chrome apps all of your Secure Shell settings as synchronised between your browsers, so if you’re on your Chromebook and move to your desktop the same session connections will be available.
I’ve found Secure Shell extremely useful because I can just pop open my Chromebook and be working in seconds. If you’re concerned about not having Internet connectivity you don’t need to worry, Secure Shell also works offline.
Chrome RDP is — you’ve guessed it — a Remote Desktop client for Chrome. Chrome RDP is the only true browser based RDP application available and as such requires no client install and can connect to any RDP enabled device.
It’s great for managing Windows servers, but also provides a convenient way to a access Windows programmes that your Chromebook might otherwise be lacking.
Chrome RDP has a free trial after which you can purchase a license for $9.99.
VNC Viewer, from Real VNC, is a VNC client for Chrome that allow you to remotely connect to any device running a VNC server with the added benefit that this Chrome app works offline.
If you run VNC on Windows, Mac, or Linux with this app you’ll be able to connect.
It’s very unusual in my job that I use any locally installed software anymore. All of my productivity applications are browser based, our help desk is browser based, and most of the tools I use are either run remotely or are multi-platform.
The disadvantages of using a Chromebook for network administration tasks are clear. Some applications require an Internet connection to function, there’s no serial port on the Chromebook, and even connecting to an external device by USB doesn’t work. There are admittedly a limited set of use cases for this sort of device, but those that do exist account for 80% of my work, and that makes this device extremely attractive.
The Samsung 2012 Chromebook I’ve been using is quick, light weight, has good battery life, and is extremely convenient. Because it’s so cheap it’s almost disposable, and scrappy enough to be thrown on the back seat of a car. I have a Macbook Pro and for day-to-day tasks I choose the Chromebook over the full laptop every time.