“Live CDs” or “Live USB Keys” are a common practice of any IT pro and admin for testing and troubleshooting purposes. Now Microsoft takes the concept of a live operating system to a whole other level. The upcoming Windows 8, slated for a mid-2012 release, lets you run a managed Windows 8 corporate image off of a USB key, which doesn’t just include your line of business (LoB) applications but also corporate data, settings, and group policy. “Windows To Go” is a PC in your pocket.
The goal is to use a provisioned Windows 8 image on unsafe PCs or hand them out to contractor’s PCs, who are required to work in a safe environment.
Will it fit your IT shop? I dug a bit deeper and tested on various machines. In this article, I give you the Why, the How, and a bit of background on this feature, so you can plan ahead.
Note: This article gives you an early look at a pre-beta feature and details of its functionality may change. We'll keep you posted on Windows-To-Go's development once the beta hits sometimes in Q1 2012."
Why? Scenarios to Consider
At the Microsoft BUILD conference in September 2011, which I attended, Microsoft made it clear that Windows To Go is targeted primarily at organizations and specific enterprise scenarios. Microsoft wants this to be the future way for employees to take their managed Windows 8 systems and load them up on PCs at home. Home PCs are often cluttered with games, non-supported applications, and out-of-date security software. That’s not exactly the perfect scenario to keep critical files or to run your LoB apps!
With Windows To Go, instead of booting to the host’s OS, you boot from the provisioned Windows 8 USB key and work in your corporate setting. Plus, there’s no impact on your PC at home, since you’re not even touching the host’s operating system.
Obviously, this idea works the other way around, too. Instead of letting unmanaged PCs enter your corporate network or share data (such as contractors or partners with no network access), why not give them a pre-provisioned Windows 8 drive to use on their system, or give them a drive that they could use on one of your computers. It’s basically the third and cheaper option, next to handing out physical machines or using virtualization.
But while Windows To Go is targeted at enterprises, there’s also a lot to love from a small business’ or an enthusiast’s perspective. If PCs don’t run as expected and even recovery environments fail, you can quickly boot to a full-blown Windows 8 environment and use every recovery tool imaginable to rescue the local OS.
Deploying Windows To Go
Setting up Windows To Go is fairly straightforward. Admins provision a USB key as they would provision a laptop or desktop by applying the customized Windows image (“wim”) to the drive. All their tools and scripts (e.g. imagex) work fine; the USB drives could then be mass produced by using a USB duplicator such as this one.
Speaking with Microsoft’s Windows To Go team at their BUILD booth, I learned that the final version of Windows 8 will also include an easy-to-use wizard to create the bootable drive, which was previously discovered in early leaked builds:
Windows To Go currently requires at least a 16 GB USB drive, though that’s barely enough to fit data and programs. I’d say that 32 GB will be the minimum requirement once Windows 8 goes final. Other than that, it works on any PC that runs Windows 8. And while Microsoft hasn’t finalized hardware requirements yet, they promised them to be a bit lower than Windows 7’s. Obviously, your hosts should support native USB booting, which is the case for most PCs and laptops released in the past couple of years.
Your staff will have a near seamless experience when using the portable Windows 8 USB key. There’s no special boot menu or steps end users need to perform. They use it like they would use their regular desktop, except for setting up USB boot on their home PCs (which may require additional training). All changes, such as settings, installed programs or saved files, are all saved to the USB key and even synced to the cloud (if you opt in to Windows Live syncing for Windows 8).
To prevent data leakage (i.e. accidentally saving your corporate data on the host PC that your Windows 8 To Go Stick is plugged into), the OS actually hides the host’s drive. These drives are still visible through Disk Management (diskmgmt.msc), but they don’t show up in Windows Explorer. To be on the safe side, there’s also an option to encrypt the drive using BitLocker.
While testing this feature, it surprised me that Windows 8 doesn’t go crazy installing and messing with drivers when roaming between multiple machines. I seamlessly switched between a 2007 Core 2 Duo desktop and a 2011 Core i7 laptop with just a bit of driver reinstalls at the first use – no blue screens or errors whatsoever, which definitely would have been the case with previous versions. Digging a bit deeper into Windows To Go, I learned that Windows 8 creates a unique ID specific to a machine and only loads the necessary drivers based on this ID, so you only have to go through a few seconds of driver installation when first using the portable Windows 8 workspace.
USB keys have a general problem by nature: They are removable. So yanking out a drive that’s actively running an operating system is usually a bad idea (= BSoD!). It is not, however, an uncommon scenario, especially in situations where you’re dealing with less-than-PC-savvy employees who don’t understand the connection between the USB key and the OS that they’re seeing on the screen.
To prevent this kind of catastrophe, Windows 8 simply “freezes.” Yes, it’s literally like pressing the “Pause” button on a movie: all operations simply stop. This freeze, however, lasts for exactly 60 seconds. If the user doesn’t plug the drive back in, the system shuts down automatically. Once he plugs it back in, Windows resumes instantly. This is obviously a killer argument that speaks for Windows To Go.
Performance: USB 3.0 preferred, 2.0 supported, and still fast enough!
Running any “Live OS” off of a USB key is usually a bit of a pain performance-wise; the entire file system/memory management stack isn’t really optimized for this scenario (page files, hibernation, etcetera).
Windows 8, however, turns things around. Since the USB stack and file system drivers of Windows 8 are designed with Windows To Go in mind, there’s next to no noticeable impact on performance – even on USB 2.0, which I tested on several machines. Depending on the characteristics of the drive (random 4k writes/reads), you might notice a bit of a delay when launching applications or copying large chunks of data (which is where USB drives often lack).
Going to USB 3.0, however, you likely won’t notice a difference at all – though booting will be at least twice as fast. You get close to SSD speeds when booting and running off of USB 3.0. To help avoid performance bottlenecks, Windows 8 (final) will run a performance test before provisioning the drive to ensure a good speed experience.
How It Works
As stated before, the Windows Developer Preview (build 8102) doesn’t come with the Windows To Go wizard. However, the underlying functionality is there for you or your admins to try out. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to do to create a bootable Windows 8 key and evaluate this feature early on. I heartily recommend trying this out, since it might be just the killer feature which, in the far future, might just be the reason to move on to Windows 8.
Note: I’ve heard that a lot of users are running into issues booting Windows To Go off of a USB key but had better luck with an external USB hard drive (which is slower but fast enough for a test run).
- You need imagex, part of WAIK, and the ISO of Windows 8.
- Insert your USB key or hard drive and create a primary NTFS partition using diskmgmt.msc:
diskpart select disk X select partition 1 delete partition 1 (which deletes the current partition) create partition primary format fs=ntfs quick active exit
Make sure to replace X with the correct number of your USB key, type diskpart list to get that.
- Once that’s done, use the imagex command to apply your corporate image (which is located under e:\sources\install.wim in my example) to the USB key with the drive letter G:
imagex /apply e:\sources\install.wim 1 G:
- On my test systems, this took anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to finish. Once that’s done, check the drive contents and make sure that the Windows 8 installation files are on board:
- Done! Now go to the BIOS or UEFI and make sure that “boot from USB” is enabled. After that’s done, Windows 8 should boot directly to the setup wizard, which lets you finalize settings for the new Metro UI or the computer name (in case you haven’t set them beforehand using WAIK).
Availability and Pricing
At BUILD, Microsoft made no effort to talk about pricing or licensing. However, Windows To Go is (sadly) targeted at businesses only and thus only may only come with the enterprise editions or the combination of a volume licensing deal. There’s no way of knowing how the IT pro or clients without volume licensing can benefit from Windows To Go until the beta or, more likely, until the final version of Windows 8 hits the market.
All in all, Windows To Go is a smart move. It establishes Windows 8 in a business market where VDIs and thin clients rise in popularity. We’ll keep you posted once Windows To Go’s details are fleshed out.
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