Windows to Go revisited: This early skeptic recants

New mobility option in Windows 8 Enterprise lets you take your OS, apps, and files without dragging the PC along

When I got a demo of Windows 8 Enterprise Edition's Windows to Go feature earlier this year at Microsoft's TechEd conference, it struck me as cool but frivolous, perhaps because its intended use case is not what I do. While I may not need to carry a mobile version of my OS on a keychain, I can see how large mobile staffs, such as field sales or contractors, can benefit from being able to work from any PC. It's more cost-effective for IT departments to replace a USB drive if something goes wrong than to deal with the downtime and expense of shipping a PC to the office, repairing it, and returning it to the field.

What does Windows to Go actually do? It lets you boot a full version of Windows 8 from an external USB drive (flash drives or external hard drives that have been approved by Microsoft) on a PC running Windows 7 or 8. For the most part, these are fully functional systems once you boot it up and the drivers install, which may take a while the first time you use Windows to Go on a PC.

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Now that Windows 8 is out of beta and in shipping products, I decided to revisit Windows to Go. I asked Kingston Digital to loan me a DataTraveler Workspace, a USB 3.0 drive certified for Windows to Go; it also works in the slower USB 2.0 ports. I received the 32GB model, in which most of the storage capacity is used by the Windows OS itself, but Kensington also sells 64GB and 128GB versions.

If you need to take Windows, Office, and your files with you -- to a client site, to a conference PC, to your home PC, and so on -- you'll very likely need more than 32GB. Of course, you can reduce the amount of data stored on the portable drive's size by using some form of cloud-based storage (like SkyDrive), assuming you have an Internet connection. If you use Windows to Go within the office, Microsoft recommends that you store your data on a server and use folder redirection and client-side caching to keep copies of the data. That way, you can synchronize data between your regular PC and your Windows to Go drive.

I plugged the drive in, first trying it with a USB 2.0 connection on a three-year-old Dell desktop system. It was initially slow to boot up as all the drivers loaded. But after it finished booting, I noticed no difference in performance between the USB-booted Windows and the PC's locally installed Windows. When I plugged the same drive into a USB 3.0 port on an Alienware M14x laptop, the boot process was lightning fast.

I noticed that the USB drive got pretty warm, which the engineers at Kingston said was normal because the drive is in constant use. Also, the underside of the DT Workspace's casing has thermal pads that absorb the heat, draw it to the surface, and radiate it into the surrounding air, keeping the drive itself within its heat tolerances.

There are several ways to manage the use of Windows to Go in your organization. You can use distribution tools like System Center Configuration Manager for deployment planning, as well as Group Policies. With connectivity back into the organization for folks on the go, you can use DirectAccess or traditional VPN connectivity to securely connect them to your network and permit access network resources. From a data security perspective, you can use BitLocker on the Windows to Go drive; if you lose your drive, you know its contents are safely encrypted. (Microsoft's TechNet site has a good step-by-step guide on deploying a fleet of Windows to Go drives.)

Windows to Go won't replace other mobility offerings, but it does provides another option for those who work in multiple locations.

I may not make use of Windows to Go myself, but there's certainly a value in having a fuss-free method of distributing (or replacing) the tools people need in a cost-effective way that is easily managed, deployed, and securable. I'm sold on the idea.

This story, "Windows to Go revisited: This early skeptic recants," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.