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Chromebooks and Crostini: Containers For Chrome OS By Google I/O?

Crostini

noun: small pieces of toasted or fried bread served with a topping as an appetizer or canapé.

In layman’s terms, a crostini is a fancy crouton. More often than not, you will find crostini served in a similar manner to Bruschetta; brushed with Olive Oil and topped with cheese and other various deliciousness.

What’s all this have to do with Chrome OS?

As it pertains to our daily fare, nothing but when it comes to containers running on Chromebooks Crostini could be the missing link we’ve been searching for over that past year.

For those of you not familiar with Crouton, it is the method in which you can install and run a Linux environment on a Chrome OS device. It is used by many developers as well as tinkerers who wish to be able to run applications on their Chromebooks that would otherwise be impossible inside the Chrome OS framework.

Getting Linux up and running on a Chrome device isn’t difficult but it does take a touch of hacking and the biggest drawback is that your Chromebook will no longer be the “secure” machine that it was designed to be.

For the better part of 3 years, we’ve kept the Linux distribution Ubuntu installed on various devices mainly because of the need for more robust image editing and creation. Aside from that, I have been known to do a little Steam gaming on my Chromebook via the Linux distro and it works very well if you have a higher-end device.

Thankfully, Chrome web apps have evolved substantially over the past few years and tools like Gravit Designer have been able to carry a heavier load which led Robby and me to use the default Chrome OS experience for our daily workflow.

For serious developers, however, using a Chromebook means still relying upon the hack method of installing Ubuntu or other Linux distros if the device is going to be worth its keep.

Enter Containers

Last fall, quite a buzz stirred around the possibility of Chromebooks running software applications via containers and Google’s Pixelbook being the catalyst for this next evolution of Chrome OS.

Since that time, we have seen glimpses of work here and there on the container project but haven’t found any real insight as to what the end-game would be or who would benefit from such developments.

From a mass-market perspective, the ability to call non-Chrome applications inside a container on a Chromebook would give users the ability to access previously unusable platforms like Microsoft .exe files or powerful video editing software that most MacOS users are accustomed to using. This would definitely give Chrome OS a major competitive edge in the market and make the transition to Chromebooks a very pain-free undertaking for the masses.

On a more conservative scale, developers being able to access a Linux environment on a Chromebook without the need for hacky developer options would make Chrome OS a powerful tool that really would have no formidable adversary on the market. Not to mention the fact that enterprises could roll out devices by the thousands without concerns for infrastructure security as a container environment would alleviate the need for the compromising Developer mode required by Crouton in its current state.

This is where “Project Crostini” may come in to play. If you’re familiar with running Crouton on your Chromebook, you may also be acquainted with a little extension known as Xiwi. Once you’ve set up your Linux distro, Xiwi allows you use that OS in a browser window inside of Chrome OS.

It’s a great little extension and takes the productivity of Crouton to a whole new level. The problem? It still requires Developer mode and crosh commands etc, etc. It’s hacky. Not hard but hacky. Chromebooks are secure, lightweight and simple. All the tinkering goes against the very nature of the beast.

A recent commit points to a new UI for the Crostini project. A closer look at Crostini reveals that it is, in fact, the running of a Linux VM(virtual machine) on Chrome OS.

Add Crostini experiment to fieldtrial testing.

This enables project Crostini, running Linux VM on Chrome OS, for
Chromium developer builds.

The reference to “developer builds” gives the impression that this is squarely targeted at a very small percentage of the user base. However, another addition to the repository reveals that this new feature will actually be avaialbe to all users at some point.

New device policy to allow Linux VMs on Chrome OS.

If the policy is unset or set to true, running Linux VMs on Chrome OS is
allowed. The unset is allowed means non-managed devices are allowed.

If the policy is allowed, the Chrome settings page will include a new menu item entitled “Better Together Settings.” Fitting given the fact that Ubuntu runs perfectly along-side Chrome OS.

This all leads us to the what, when and how.

The what is just about anybody’s guess but I would be inclined to think that Google will have a fairly short leash on which types of apps and VMs will be allowed on their beloved Chrome OS.

Moving on to how. (saving the best for last) That is still very much a mystery. This could be a roadmap to kiosk style applications like we see on Chromebooks where admins have to push allowed VMs to devices before they can be accessed via Crostini. On the other hand, it may turn out to be a free-for-all where any user with access to an executable application can call it up via the new container UI and the sky’s the limit.

When?

I’m going to go ahead and call this one. Google I/O, starting Tuesday, May 8th is when I think we’ll see Crostini and containers in the flesh. Buried in the .json file of the Linux/VM commit we find the line “supported_on chrome_os:66.”

Not so coincidentally, Chrome and Chrome OS version 66 are both slated for release in late April just weeks prior to Google’s annual developer event. You can bet we’ll be watching. Make sure you tune in for the play-by-play from Chrome Unboxed as we watch in anticipation to see if Crostini will be the evolution of Crouton and the future of Chrome OS.

Crouton to Crostini Image credit: Dennis Lockhart


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Source: Chromium Repository via Reddit; Dennis Lockhart