Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A First Peek at Google's Chrome OS

Last Thursday, Google Inc. introduced Chrome OS aka Chromium OS, to the public with quite considerable fanfare. The news enjoyed universal coverage in the media. Chromium OS is an operating system that the company is developing on its own as an open source effort. Sources and build directions are now easily accessible.

I gave it try. In short, Chromium OS consists of a Debian-derived operating system using a Linux 2.6 kernel and Google's Chrome browser. It is meant to run on personal computers with the i386 architecture with either 32- or 64-bit processors. With the packages Google includes, the compressed install image is roughly 800 megabytes in size and takes up 2.8 gigabytes of disk space expanded.

The distribution is open to customization. Adding applications is possible. Only, the packages have to comply with the Debian distribution format.

Obviously, Chrome OS is meant to run bare-bones on very thin clients. Non-essential applications and data are intended to be stored elsewhere in the cloud. The small footprint and, hopefully, the ensuing speed may harbor this operating system's greatest strengths, potentially turning Chrome OS into a powerful, cost-efficient tool for corporate users.

In view of the current governmental push for patient record digitization, the health care sector appears particularly suited. I regularly visit a large academic outpatient clinic. Every examination room is equipped with a conventional stand-alone personal computer connected to an intranet. Across the entire hospital campus, these computers must number in the thousands. In such environment, thin clients appear superbly suited to drastically diminish cost for hardware, software and IT maintenance. Here, Chrome OS may provide a rich resource.

The build instructions for Chrome OS on the Chromium project site are straight forward. I compiled the system with Ubuntu's Karmic Koala (9.10) hosted on a work station with two 64-bit AMD Opteron 246 processors. The hardware is described in detail in my post dated May 22, 2008. I opted not to compile the Chrome browser myself. Instead, I downloaded the pre-built package available from Google and copied it to the build directory as directed in the Chromium project documentation. Do not omit to provide a user name and a shared user password. They may be essential for log in and system administration later.

The build process unfolded uneventful. However, complications arose, when I had to decide how to actually run the Chrome OS.

Google provides two options to ready the successful build for installation. One method uses a bootable USB 1-gigabyte flash memory drive, from which the system can be installed on a dedicated computer. For this procedure to work, USB devices have to be enabled in the boot list of the bios first.

The other installation option bundles the build in a VMware image named ide.vmdk.

Since I did not wish to dedicate a computer to testing Chrome OS quite yet, I chose this option. Eventually, I managed to install the image on a virtual personal computer emulated with qemu-kvm (version 0.11.0). Unfortunately, the emulation slows operations down considerably. Regardless, the procedure worked sufficiently fast for preliminary exploration.

I used qemu with the following options on the command line to start the emulator:
  • qemu-system-x86_64 -localtime -m 256 -vga std ide.vmdk

The screenshots below illustrate the sequence of steps I encountered starting up Chrome OS.

After a successful boot, the system introduces itself with a login screen.
I used my preset shared user password to log in. After we are signed in successfully, the Chrome browser launches. automatically.
We may browse the web or start our web applications.
Not too bad at this point!

Alas, I was not able to bring Chrome OS up to speed with qemu. I found a satisfactory solution in virtualbox. This emulator, however, does not accept the format of ide.vmdk. It has to be converted to vdi. The conversion takes two steps: We have to convert the Chrome OS vmdk image to a raw image with the suffix .bin with two commands in the directory where the image resides:
  1. We have toconvert the Chrome OS vmdk image to a raw image with the suffix .bin using qemu-img convert  ide.vmdk chrome_os.bin
  2. Then, we convert the raw image into a vdi image using a virtualbox tool with the command VBoxManage convertdd chrome_os.bin chrome_os.vdi

If we have not installed virtualbox yet, we shall be instructed to do so using sudo apt-get while trying to execute the second command.

After opening the virtualbox graphic user interface with the command virtualbox, we attach the vdi image as a hard drive from the menu by clicking Add in the Hard Disks tab under File > Virtual Media Manager. We locate and select the chrome_os.vdi image and click Open. Once the image has been added to the list, we click OK, and continue to create the remaining virtual machine profile. I reserved 256 megabytes as Base Memory. The operating system is Linux. The version is 2.6. The rest is set by default or optional. Now, Chrome OS is ready for boot.

Virtualbox is also available for Apple Macintosh computers with the intel architecture. Following the same steps as above, I successfully installed Chrome OS using the vdi image in virtualbox on a Mac Mini running OS X 10.5 (Leopard).

The emulator runs Chrome OS on both computers surprisingly fast.

  • According to Stephen Shankland' s post with the title "Google shows off Chrome OS tablet ideas" on dated Dec. 29, 2009, that I found on today, the ideal thin client running Chromium could be a tablet (02/07/10).
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