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Microsoft readying Windows 8.1 download for Windows To Go USB stick

Microsoft will soon provide the ability to download Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview on Windows To Go USB sticks.

The Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview version for Windows To Go USB sticks will soon be available as an online update for IT administrators who want to test drive the new operating system without installing it on their host systems.

The beta of the new operating system was not part of the recent Windows 8.1 Preview launch. Microsoft Windows To Go customers can expect to download the Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview version in a fashion similar to how Windows 8 users download Windows 8.1 Preview through the Windows Store.

Microsoft's intention to offer the Windows To Go Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview as an online download rounds out the company's efforts to deliver Windows To Go to its enterprise customers. Some Microsoft partners have already received a Windows To Go USB stick loaded with Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview.

Windows To Go was designed to alleviate some of the mobile security challenges related to the onslaught of bring-your-own-device practices and the removal of corporate data by employees working outside the office.

The encrypted drive enables workers to plug in a corporate Windows To Go stick on their computers at home, and the same corporate image will allow a worker to access a virtual private network, explained Craig Ashley, senior product manager for the Microsoft Windows Commercial group.

The idea of using encrypted thumb drives to protect corporate computers from any viruses that could infect them when end users personalize their systems will appeal to IT pros, said Guy Baroan, president of Baroan Technology, an IT consultancy in Elmwood Park, N.J.

Windows To Go may also be useful to businesses that require high security, said Michael Suby, vice president of Stratecast at Frost & Sullivan, a market research company in Mountain View, Calif.

Windows To Go memory sticks could make some inroads with military, government, education and health care industries, according to Gary Gerber, senior product manager at Imation Corp. of Oakdale, Minn., a certified Windows To Go provider. Imation will introduce a provisioning appliance so corporate images can be put on dozens of the USB sticks at the same time instead of singly.

If the USB stick is lost or stolen, IT administrators can remotely wipe the stick and make it inoperable because it is a centrally managed device, according to Gerber. This allows companies to keep corporate data stored on the stick safe, he added.

Whether Windows To Go can expand its reach to more than niche industries remains to be seen. Windows To Go may be used in the enterprise to repurpose full-featured desktops or laptops as inexpensive thin clients paired with a Windows To Go stick. The USB sticks do not work with actual thin clients, however. Today, Windows To Go can only run on Microsoft's certified devices running Intel's X86- or X64-based processors.

"Users are adapting from a client-heavy experience to a more lightweight ... interaction with applications," Suby said. A different model could be that enterprises no longer replace full-featured devices and go with a thin client with no embedded OS and then issue a PC on a stick, he said.

This would allow companies to transform high-maintenance, corporate PC inventory to a lighter-inventory license that has a longer lifespan, that consumes less energy, and has less risk for personalization. This would enable IT to quickly turn over systems to different end users by issuing them a generic device, Suby said. End users will simply plug the USB stick into compatible devices.

However, replacing full-featured desktops with a Windows To Go stick-based desktop would require a cultural shift in how IT administrators deploy devices and how end users work.

It's an evolution of enterprise desktop computing, Suby noted.

In the long term, it remains to be seen whether Microsoft will even consider other form factors beyond the USB stick drive. Solid-state flash drives and cards are being incorporated into laptops and data centers where it makes sense to have fast boot-up or data access times.

"Right now, we are focused on the USB stick," said Microsoft's Ashley. However, he did not rule out the use of other storage technology for the future.

Companies such as Kingston Technology, Spyrus and Super Talent Technology are among the vendors certified to provide a Windows To Go thumb drive. Western Digital offers a version of Windows To Go as an external hard drive.

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