Windows To Go for the Enterprise Unveiled at Microsoft Conference

At its Build conference yesterday, Microsoft revealed additional details about its upcoming Windows To Go product that runs Windows 8.

Windows To Go enables IT to provide users with an imaged version of Windows 8 that meets the organization's desktop standard. The image resides on a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 memory stick or drive, making it a good choice for mobile workers. Users simply plug the memory stick into a non-corporate or unmanaged laptop or PC for access to the full, managed corporate desktop.  The product also supports Windows Update patching, BitLocker support, and any security and antimalware protection that is implemented for corporate desktops.

Although Windows To Go was mentioned in one of Microsoft's keynote topics at Build, the details were explained on Thursday in a session lead by Steve Silverberg, a Microsoft principal lead program manager. Silverberg said Microsoft is targeting Windows To Go at enterprises, which are expected to buy in bulk (licensing details weren't announced, however).

"We did this in Windows 8 because we felt the demand was right," Silverberg said, without elaborating.

Silverberg outlined several scenarios for using Windows To Go. It might be used by people who work at home for various reasons, including after snowstorms or natural disasters that prevent them from traveling to work. Windows To Go can be handed to contractors visiting an organization, allowing them access to the corporate network. It could be used by people who need to share their PCs or laptops on a routine basis, such as police or emergency workers.

If a user removes the Windows To Go thumb drive without shutting it down, there is a one-minute period in which the session can be restored by plugging the drive in again. The kernel freezes the operating system for that minute. During a demo, a video playback using Windows To Go was interrupted in this way; the video instantly resumed when the device was reattached.

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Windows To Go USB device handed out to developers at Microsoft's Build Conference.

One catch mentioned by Silverberg is that the machine using the Windows To Go memory stick has to be an x64-based device. However, Windows To Go will take advantage of the underlying hardware that it shares with the installed client operating system. In a demo, Silverberg plugged Windows To Go into an ASUS machine that lacked touch-screen capability, and so that feature wasn't available in the Windows To Go desktop in the demo.

Windows To Go will start automatically if the user selects the "boot to USB" option on the client device. Typically, that means pressing the F12 key during bootup. However, Windows 8 will have a boot-to-USB option that will make this process easier, Silverberg said, although that feature is not currently a part of developer preview bits. Windows To Go can be configured to boot on both the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) and BIOS-based computers, Silverberg said.

Microsoft's early release of Windows To Go runs the Windows 8 "developer preview" version of the OS. It's not clear when the product might be available since Microsoft has not yet announced the timeline for Windows 8 general availability.

Microsoft handed out Kingston 32-GB USB memory sticks with Windows To Go on it at the end of Silverberg's session (see photo above). Microsoft is targeting the 32 GB size, but Silverberg said it might be possible to reduce the drive size.

According to Silverberg, IT pros can create a master image, provision the drive, and use a duplicator to make copies of the USB drive. He said that Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager or a home-grown management system can be used for that process. The imaging process can be scripted or completed using ImageX. Volume activation can be handled with the KMS service or Active Directory.

Windows To Go includes a roaming feature, but other than that, it's the same as any other copy of Windows 8, Silverberg said, and it is managed the same. IT pros can set Group Policy and set it up so that anytime a user logs onto the network with Windows To Go, updates will get pushed down to that user.

Microsoft also envisions partner opportunities with Windows To Go. In addition to having BitLocker security support, partners could add value to Windows To Go by specializing in adding hardware encryption capabilities, Silverberg said. USB drives were mostly not designed for the Windows To Go scenario. They were built for copying files. Flash drives have to be up to speed to run Windows To Go and Microsoft hasn't yet seen flash Secure Digital (SD) drives that are robust enough to run it.

"For flash drives in particular, we will have a certification program," Silverberg said. "Drives need to be fast, and have random read/writes with low latency, plus have a two year minimum [warrantee]."

Windows To Go worked when plugged into a few test machines, according to this Microsoft blog, although it worked slowly. Windows To Go will actually keep track of a machine based on its hardware imprint. Silverberg explained that Windows To Go will boot faster the second time it is inserted into a laptop or PC because of this device recognition capability.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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