BY JONATHAN HEFTER, FOUNDER & CEO
You can tell an idea has legs when its name gets applied to everything. The first such term I can remember from when I was growing up (quite recently, actually) was digital. Suddenly, every product that could ostensibly incorporate 1’s and 0’s anywhere inside of it was digital. VCRs, answering machines, musical instruments, cars - if they could stick a microchip or numerical display in it, they could stick digital at the beginning of the name. A few years later, net and web took over. Similarly, terms that were coined to describe new strategies in education, such as blended learning, flipped classrooms, and MOOCs (Seinfeld, anyone?), are now increasingly being applied to any activity that puts a student within twenty feet of a computer.
One recent term to suffer from this indiscriminate application is cloud. These days, anything remotely related to the internet, from online news to internet shopping, and now even school curriculums, is said to be ‘in the cloud.’ With all the hype, it’s easy to see why the Chromebook, the Google designed device now wildly popular in US K-12, has been criticized since release as the latest fad to abuse the term. Despite the naysayers, veteran district tech directors are expressing increasing enthusiasm that this technology is creating the greatest increase in K-12 technology access since the US was carpet bombed with thousands of free hours of AOL/drink coasters.
At Neverware, we couldn’t agree more. From the moment we began exploring this amazing technology, we have only gained more and more excitement. In particular, we became increasingly fascinated by the operating system that powers the Chromebook, Chromium OS (Google calls their near-identical branded version ‘Chrome OS’). As we gathered input from the many tech directors we met, seasoned professionals who’ve managed technology for schools longer than many of us here have been alive, we began to explore whether there was a way to accelerate this transformation. If Chromium OS can make a $200 Chromebook incredibly useful, could it do the same for the expensive PCs and Macs schools already had. If it could, schools wouldn’t have to wait years to collect enough new devices for everyone. Schools would be able to provide that level of access today with the devices they already had.
As we rolled up our sleeves and dove in further into the operating system, we noticed three principles in particular that Chromium OS uniquely combined to achieve far greater reliability and much simpler management than the Windows and Mac OS X installations schools were accustomed to using.
Step One - Statelessness
Most devices we use, like Windows PCs, iPads, and Android phones, remember changes that get made during use. A device that remembers changes is said to be stateful. Devices are stateful so they can remember a user’s work and settings, even after being shut down and restarted. While this has obvious advantages, it’s also the reason that computer problems, like viruses and system file corruptions, don’t disappear with a simple restart. This common computer behavior can be a difficult fact of life in any technology environment, but is often especially challenging in schools where devices are subjected to a constant parade of particularly curious young users.
Chromium OS, however, is purposefully designed to be largely stateless - it forgets most changes each time it’s turned off. While it may hold onto a few pieces of data for convenience, each reboot refreshes much of the operating system, similar to a full reinstallation. By constantly clearing away the negative changes that slow down traditional operating systems, Chromium OS can perpetually stay fast and functional, keeping students learning and saving members of the school’s technology team from the sisyphean task of endless computer repairs.
Step Two - Cloud-based Management
Once upon a time, every school had their own email server, which often needed to be housed on campus. Not only were these computer servers expensive, but if they went down for any reason, be it severe storm or saucy sandwich, email service would cease until a member of the school’s technology team brought the email server back to working order. Email outages like these are increasingly rare these days, as almost all school email is now cloud-based - not unlike how electricity gets delivered from the power grid. The same is true for most technology-related services that schools once had to provide for themselves. From file storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive) to educational videos (YouTube, NetFlix) cloud-based products now provide many services that previously required expensive computer servers and complex software. And despite the ease of managing users through tools like Google Apps for Education without having to worry about outages, cost, or complexity, the same cannot be said for the management the devices provided to those users. Technology teams can regularly spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars for the hardware and software needed to control everything from login passwords to asset tracking to user access policies.
We knew that Chromebooks finally put an end to this exorbitant anachronism by relying on the web-based Google Management Console for all system administration. We were amazed to discover, though, that this ability existed for any device running Chromium OS. Whether schools buy new Chromebooks or loaded it on their existing computers, the financial and time-consuming overhead of hosting the management infrastructure in a campus data center becomes a thing of the past.
Step Three - Fault Tolerance
Traditional computers do not have a great deal fault tolerance. As anyone who has struggled with a misbehaving computer, let alone managed a network of them, can attest to, there are an endless number of ways to render them useless.
Fault tolerance is a way of describing the degree to which a system of any type can continue properly functioning under adverse conditions. As it turns out, traditional computer operating systems are not very tolerant at all, as anyone who has struggled with a misbehaving computer, let alone managed a network of them, can attest to the endless number of ways to render them useless.
One of the lesser known, but certainly most entertaining, incidents from the past to highlight this underwhelming tolerance, involved a now-deprecated graphics utility for the Linux operating system, called Bumblebee. The program’s talented developer, Martin Juhl, going by his online handle MrMeee, put out a routine update to the software code that was responsible for cleaning up unneeded files after Bumblebee gets installed on a user’s computer. Unfortunately, he made a single typo by inadvertently adding a single space on a single line of the code. (Don’t fear the following programming references. This will be easy to follow along.) The oversight added a space in the command that directed the program to the folder it was supposed to delete, unintentionally separating the beginning of the address /usr (Linux equivalent of Windows’ ‘My Documents’) from the specific location in the file /lib/nvidia-current/xorg/xorg, so it looked like rm -rf /usr /lib/nvidia-current/xorg/xorg. In layman’s terms, he inserted a space between a zipcode and a street address. And Linux stops reading addresses at the first space. This result was the program deleting the proper files… along with the rest of the content on the the computer. Anzexin, a Bumblee user and member of its online bulletin board, was the first to spot the bug and issued an articulate warning to the community the rest of the community (‘oh my god’), followed by a desperate warning by the its creator, MrMeee (‘GIANT BUG... causing /usr to be deleted... so sorry....’), but the damage was already done. The devastation wreaked by the effects of the bug was matched only by the hilarity of the community’s inexplicable and prolific response (keep scrolling). The moral of the story is that a single typo allowed a small program to kindly ask the operating system to delete everything the user had - and the operating system was kind enough to oblige.
One of the many outlandish reactions to the infamous Bumblebee bug
Chromium OS is the opposite. While it’s customizability is comparitively limited, it is extremely difficult* to break the operating system. This high-level of tolerance empowers teachers to manage their classrooms’ computers and tech directors to plan massive deployments without either fearing that one wrong move could knock many machines out of service.
* Author’s Note: A different adjective was originally used here, but my esteemed colleagues felt compelled to profer the unsolicited suggestion that a number of unfortunate, though impressive, personal feats during the product’s development would render the use of ‘foolproof’ as self-incriminating.
As we slowly began developing the ability to run Chromium OS on a wide variety of computers in schools, we were excited to see the transformation it had on the machines districts were previously struggling to maintain. As the product came together, it took little time for us to see the striking resemblance that PCs and Macs running Chromium OS had to a district’s new Chromebooks. The conversion from barely useable machines to stateless, cloud-managed, fault-tolerant ones took only a few minutes. Even better, from their very first use, teachers and students were completely at-ease with familiar Chromebook interface, hardly registering that these were the same machines they had struggled with for so long. Chromium OS is being deployed more quickly, used more reliably, and managed more easily, than any platform previously adopted by schools.
Whether bringing aging deployments roaring back to life or collaborating with Google to integrate them with brand new Chromebooks, the many months of effort are achieving the impact we’ve worked so hard for. Not many people in tech startups get the incredible experience of putting the magic back into technology for students and teachers.
From everyone here at Neverware to the many technology leaders whose partnership, guidance, and passion have given us this rare opportunity to be a part of something great - thank you.