With its Windows 8 feature called Windows To Go, Microsoft has turned the quaint USB stick into the key to transforming employees' personal desktops into Windows 8 corporate desktops.
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Though Microsoft claims that Windows To Go enables bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs, it may be quite limited in the types of devices for which it will be useful.
Windows To Go lets IT boot a full, managed corporate Windows 8 image, along with users' business apps, data and settings, to a Universal Serial Bus (USB) device. End users can then plug that USB stick into their own PCs or laptops to run a corporate Windows 8 desktop.
Using Windows To Go, "IT organizations can support the 'Bring Your Own PC trend' and businesses can give contingent staff access to the corporate environment without compromising security," Microsoft said in a blog post on Tuesday.
But there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the technology. It is still unclear whether Windows To Go will actually work on popular non-Windows devices such as tablets. During a session on Windows To Go at its Build show last year, Microsoft provided a developer preview that could only be booted to x64 systems with a Windows Vista or Windows 7 logo.
Microsoft did say on its TechNet site that Windows To Go will not work on its Windows 8 ARM tablets. In addition, Windows 8 on ARM won't connect to corporate domains, so enterprises that planned to integrate Windows 8 ARM tablets into their IT environments won't be able to do so easily. (The Apple iPad doesn't connect to corporate domains, either.)
"I can understand them not supporting Windows To Go on ARM, as it is a more locked-down version of Windows 8 anyway -- so not really set up for enterprise users that are more likely to use Windows To Go," said Ben Lowe, a consultant for the Tribal Labs blog who tested Windows To Go.
Although non-ARM Windows 8 tablets will also exist, it's unclear whether Windows To Go will run on them.
Microsoft didn't mention running Windows To Go on Apple's Mac, but at least one developer has booted it on a MacBook Air.
While Windows To Go will certainly give companies a way to turn employees' personal Windows machines into corporate Windows 8 desktops, it may not be much use in BYOD shops.
More on Windows on ARM:
Lowe said he initially hoped that Windows To Go would provide "work/travel/home device nirvana," where he could have an ARM-based tablet set up for the family that he could plug his work Windows To Go USB into and use for business trips and meetings.
Lowe said he also imagined plugging the USB into a dumb PC to turn it into a Windows 8 desktop. "Unfortunately, I can't imagine that flicking between ARM and 64-bit hardware would ever work," he said.
Still, the Windows To Go concept does hold some appeal.
"I use the law library at a local law school from time to time," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis firm in Kirkland, Wash. "Instead of carrying my PC there, I could just take a USB drive with Windows To Go and use one of the computers they have in the library."
In addition, questions about Windows licensing remain unanswered. Since Windows To Go is a corporate desktop feature, it may require Microsoft Enterprise Licenses and Software Assurance. Licensing will also determine use on non-Microsoft devices. Some analysts also wonder whether companies will have to buy a second copy of Windows.
"The answer to the licensing questions will answer how useful the [Windows To Go] approach is," Cherry said.
Microsoft would not address questions about Windows To Go licensing this week.
As for management, once the Windows 8 USB drives are in use, IT managers can service the Windows image the same way they would handle a laptop or PC, using Group Policy or software distribution mechanisms. When a user logs on, the policies are pushed down to them, according to Microsoft.
IT can also encrypt Windows To Go by using passwords and BitLocker protection -- which would minimize concerns about lost or stolen USB sticks.
Using the Windows To Go preview
Loading a Windows 8 Consumer Preview ISO image onto a USB 2 stick takes over four hours -- plus a couple more hours to configure, Lowe said. He added that it would take far less time to load Windows 8 onto a USB 3.0 -- which Microsoft recommends using.
Microsoft has not published hardware requirements, but it said during the session at Build that Windows To Go should be used on systems that minimize hub depth to external ports, firmware that supports reliable USB boot and Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) firmware that supports USB-class boot entries. It requires at least 32-GB drives.
Each boot on new computer can take 20 minutes to install drivers. After booting from the USB, Lowe said, the user interface is sluggish for roughly five minutes.
"Once it's all there, then it seems quite snappy but really struggles again when trying to open apps -- so much so that some Metro apps just won't load," he said. "Windows Update doesn't seem to work either."
Lowe added that these issues will likely be resolved before the final release.