Thursday, 23 January 2014

Statelessness and Chromebooks

I’ve periodically ranted on about how Chromebooks make an ideal machine to take travelling and so on because they are pretty near stateless - all your data is elsewhere, so if you lose it all you lose is your local device - annoying to be sure, but equally as all your data in Googleland, it’s not as if you can’t get access via some other device.

Up to now all this ranting had been pretty theoretical. Then a week last Sunday, my Chromebook decided to shred it’s internal disk. It made an audible click and stopped. Cycling the power caused it to try and boot, get as far as the splash screen, and crash again with an audible click.

Forcing it to go back to factory default didn’t work. It didn’t stay up long enough for the magic key sequence, neither did pulling the battery out and waiting 10 or so minutes before replacing it.

It was dead. Deceased. That moment when a useful device turns into a useless lump of plastic and silicon.

Fortunately it was under warranty, so I phoned up Acer’s technical support line to lodge a warranty claim. They of course tried the standard twenty questions on me, which descended into comedy after have you switched it on and off? and is it charged up?, as the helpdesk person started on the windows laptop not the chromebook Q&A.

That resolved, they agreed it needed a return, and duly emailed me a prepaid label. I’ve got to say they were pretty efficient both at fixing it and keeping me informed.

When I got it back yesterday it had been reset to the factory default out of the box configuration. I, of course, with the arrogance of all IT professionals, had not bothered to make up a recovery USB of my personalisations.

First of all it appeared not to boot, but that was just me being impatient, it was doing a self install/self config. Once that was done getting back on teh road was a case of simply reentering the network configuration information, my google account details, changing the wallpaper, letting Chrome reinstall the evernote, pocket and buffer plugins that I use and we were done.

Ten minutes from boot to working. In the meantime the OS had updated itself so another 90 seconds for a reboot and we were done.

The thing that took longest was deliberating over my wallpaper.

Now my Chromebook shouldn’t have shredded its disk like that, but I’ve been around computers long enough to know that it’s a case of when not if.

As the Chromebook was effectively stateless I didn’t lose any data, all I lost was some network configuration and personalisation data, neither of which was a big deal to put back.

A long time ago, when God was still in nappies, I designed a network solution using PCNFS. All the applications and data lived on servers, and the PC’s loaded everything from the network. The local disk was simply a cache (actually it was a little more complex - users could have private applications locally and the login script checked for them and their config data and added them to the desktop at startup. There was also a local install of the OS so that if the machine was off the network it could boot and use local applications)

As a solution this was extremely powerful. All the data was stored centrally and backed up. Application upgrades could be performed in a single central location. If a machine’s disk died, all that was required was a disk swap. Support and reconfiguration was vastly simplified reducing technician costs.

Changes in the dominant operating system killed this design - and we then started to have to leap through hoops imaging machines and the like. What I like about the Chromebook solution is it’s elegance and simplicity - your data and applications live elsewhere that’s very reliable. The thing in front of you is simply an access device - a portable thin client …

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