Chromoting and what it means for you

My talk from JIF2010, in pictures
This is just to amplify a few of the points I made in my talk today in the "Thunderbolts and Lightning" session at the JISC Joint Innovation Forum conference at Royal Holloway.  The graphic at the head of this posting was kindly produced by the good folk at Meeting Magic as a summary of the session.

The concept of the sessions was to look at the emerging threats and challenges facing institutions.  I chose to think more in terms of new opportunities and how we might take advantage of them.

Let's begin by following on from my recent posting about the iPad.  The conceit here is that the iPad has taken off because it meets most people's needs, most of the time. Whether or not you agree with this, it turned out that lots of people did want a big iPhone :-)

It may be worth reflecting on whether this owes more to an improved user experience through multitouch, or a reduction in the number of frustrating failure modes associated with a more complex device.

So, will Steve Jobs be on stage this time next year announcing a 27" iMac running iOS?


[Perhaps!  However, the rumour mills are always cranking this kind of thing out...]

Of course Apple are by no means the only player in the newly rejuvenated information appliance space.  Google's Android is probably the key competitor, and with devices from the likes of Dell and Toshiba it is now clearly viewed as a mainstream option.

If we peek into our crystal ball, what is the role of the IT department in a world where information appliances and software have usurped the traditional role of the "PC"?  There may be a lesson here from Google's other operating system - ChromeOS.  ChromeOS is an even more radical reconception of what people need from computing devices.  Put simply, ChromeOS replaces the normal operating system desktop and applications with the Chrome web browser.  Until recently this might have been of limited interest, but with the possibilities opened up by HTML5 (including offline storage), it's now looking much more interesting. As Mikel Manitius notes in a blog posting, ChromeOS is Google’s Secret Enterprise Thin Client:

So if an Enterprise can either move its most common applications into the cloud (or better yet, build it that way from scratch), the next logical step is to replace the old legacy desktop. Those applications that can’t be given a web-based interface for whatever reason, can just be encapsulated through browser-based terminal emulation or remote display.

The key word here is "chromoting".  This is still a little sketchy at the time of writing, but it appears to be Google's solution to the problem of legacy apps that are not delivered as a web service. Chromoting provides access to apps running on another machine, in a similar fashion to a remote desktop session, but delivered through the Chrome browser.

Initial discussion of chromoting has revolved around the consumer scenario that a ChromeOS user will have a PC whirring away in a corner somewhere running legacy Windows apps that they occasionally need access to.  I contend that a more likely scenario for enterprise and education users is that the apps will be hosted in the data centre or the cloud.  This raises some interesting possibilities such as renting apps on a pay as you go basis - why buy AutoCAD if you only need it for a month?  There may also be significant potential for efficiency gains and cost savings by sourcing apps from a mixture of internal builds (for specialist software) and external sources for off-the-shelf packages.

It's perhaps worth noting that there is very little new stuff involved here - application virtualization is already well established, with large scale use of systems such as Microsoft App-V, Citrix XenApp and VMware ThinApp. These packaging technologies form the back end to desktop virtualization systems like VMware View and are used to drive the bulk of today's conventional thin client deployments.

Sticking with Google as our example, it's not hard to picture a future where mainstream apps will be delivered via the web (perhaps increasingly through the Google Apps Marketplace), with legacy apps being chromoted.  In this scenario the Google Docs general purpose storage could easily become the "home drive" for data from chromoted apps.  There are multiple potential income streams here building on top of the Google Apps infrastructure that make this an attractive business model.

If the developments I've outlined in this blog come to pass, they would be hugely beneficial for the service user - rapid provisioning of new apps, availability of multiple versions of apps, automatic cloud based backup, no DLL/versioning/patchlevel conflicts, "disposable" hardware, and so on. However, the potential for disaster is also high unless sufficient care is taken to ensure that the approach taken is sustainable.

To get the mix right, I think a change of emphasis would be required from central IT services - this is probably best phrased as "adapt or die", melodrama notwithstanding.  This change would see a reduction in effort devoted to areas such as servers, storage and corporate desktop support.  In would come a new focus on the likes of APIs and systems integration and Linked Data - and providing technical assistance to the legal team during contract negotiations! My feeling is that this work would be significantly more rewarding (and challenging!) than that which it displaces.

This theme of "commodity" oriented work giving way to "complexity" oriented work in order to maximize added value is one that I will return to from time to time in my blog posts.