Google bought CloudReady, the largest ChromiumOS distribution
December 17, 2020
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Screenshot of CloudReady interface.
Enlarge / CloudReady is a ChromeOS alternative built from the source available in ChromiumOS repositories, much as CentOS was built from Red Hat Enterprise Linux source code.

Jim Salter

This week, Google acquired OS vendor Neverware, makers of the CloudReady distribution of ChromiumOS. ChromiumOS is the fully open source, upstream version of ChromeOS—the sharply limited, cloud-focused operating system which Chromebooks and Chromeboxes run on.

The acquisition sounds great on paper—Google certainly has more resources than Neverware, including but not limited to the developer base for ChromeOS itself. According to Neverware’s FAQ on the transition, big G will honor all existing license agreements and has no current plans to curtail availability of the free Home edition of CloudReady.

All of this good news comes with “at this time” caveats on every bullet point, unfortunately—which strikes us as a bit unnerving, coming as it does immediately after Red Hat announced that it was killing off CentOS Linux and replacing it with CentOS Stream.

While there is no actual connection between Google and Red Hat, the relationship between CloudReady and Google’s own ChromeOS was more or less an exact replica of that between RHEL and CentOS. The flagship distribution in both cases is open source, and the source code is available—but compiling it into a working product is a significant undertaking, and that final, working product is not available freely from the vendor.

CloudReady, like CentOS before it, takes the freely available source of its parent distribution and turns it into a freely available and immediately functional clone.

A Chromebook by another name

The analogy between CentOS and CloudReady does break down a bit when the question of hardware comes into play. RHEL and CentOS both installed on the same generic x86 hardware—but Google ChromeOS is only distributed on Google-sanctioned Chromebooks and Chromeboxes, with sharply limited life cycles and support windows.

CloudReady is intended to spread the ChromeOS experience beyond those hardware bounds and short lifeycles—it can be installed on any arbitrary PC hardware, and it doesn’t automatically “expire” when that hardware reaches a certain age. For schools with aging fleets of Windows 7-based PCs that wouldn’t do well with Windows 10, CloudReady offers a way to modernize the operating system without refreshing the hardware itself.

While the primary income stream for Neverware comes from educational and enterprise customers who pay per-device license fees, the company also offers a freely available Home version. The Home edition of CloudReady allows anyone to turn an old PC (or a new, very cheap PC) into a Chromebook-like system.

The free Home version cannot be managed with the Google Admin console, like Chromebooks in education or enterprise environments would be, but is otherwise a functional ChromeOS substitute, including regular, automatic security upgrades. Education and Enterprise CloudReady variants take this a step further, being fully manageable with Chrome Management and Google Admin console.

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