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Are portable desktops good virtualization alternatives?

Portable desktops can deliver high performance and top-notch security, depending on the form factor. But they aren't a fit for as many use cases as desktop virtualization.

Making the transition to virtual desktops is not a trivial matter. There are significant costs involved and a steep learning curve for end users and IT. As a result some organizations question whether it is better to try portable desktops as virtualization alternatives.

Neither portable desktops nor virtual desktops are a cure all for every use case. IT pros must consider which approach best meets their organizations' unique needs.

To get started, it's important to know about the two different types of portable desktops. One version is an actual machine that is bigger and bulkier than a typical laptop but also far more powerful. These machines achieve desktop-like power in a laptop-like form factor. Portable desktops can also refer to bootable desktops on removable media such as USB flash drives.

Portable desktop machines

Windows to Go allows users to boot and run corporate desktops from a USB flash drive.

The primary advantage of portable desktop machines as virtualization alternatives is performance. It is true admins can configure virtual desktops to run almost any application, but portable desktop machines are purpose-built for running high-demand applications that require more memory, processing power and graphical processing than the average virtual desktop delivers.

The major drawback to portable desktop machines are their size and cost. They commonly sell at a price on par with high-end laptops. Furthermore, the devices tend to be much larger and heavier than a typical laptop. Never mind the fact that they won't fit into a typical laptop bag and aren't the sort of thing users can work with on an airplane tray table.

Although many portable desktop machines can run from battery, the batteries generally don't last very long -- less than two hours.

Portable desktops on removable media

A good example of a removable media portable desktop is Windows to Go, a feature in Windows 10 Enterprise Edition. Windows to Go allows users to boot and run corporate desktops from a USB flash drive.

This type of portable desktop actually shares a lot of similarities with virtual desktops. Both approaches provide users with corporate desktops they can access from devices that are not under the organization's direct control.

One big advantage that Windows to Go has over virtual desktops is that it reduces the risk of leaks of sensitive information, such as account credentials. When a user accesses a virtual desktop from a personal device, she boots the device's native operating system and then accesses the virtual desktop through either an app or a web browser. If the device's OS is infected with a keylogger or other malware, it could expose anything the user types into the virtual desktop.

Windows to Go, however, is self-contained. Devices boot from the Windows to Go operating system, rather than from the device's native OS. In fact, the device's own hard disks are disabled when Windows to Go is in use. As such, Windows to Go minimizes the risks posed by accessing corporate resources from a personal machine.

Another advantage is that users can work with portable desktops from removable media without internet connectivity. Users can boot to their corporate desktops, even if they don't have an internet connection.

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Removable media is not all sunshine and daisies

On the negative side, because the operating system runs from a USB flash drive with Windows to Go, the desktop has a limited capacity. A flash drive might not be large enough to contain all the applications a user needs to run.

Also, these types of portable desktops are not hardware agnostic. Users can access virtual desktops from nearly any device as long as a client component is available for the device. A portable desktop, however, only works on certain devices. Users can only work with Windows to Go, for example, with a PC that supports booting from a USB device.

Finally, portable desktops such as Windows to Go are difficult to maintain. Like the operating system on a laptop, admins can only patch and maintain Windows to Go desktops when they are online. More importantly, Windows to Go devices do not support operating system upgrades. If Microsoft releases a new version of Windows, admins would have to reimage the flash drive rather than upgrade it.

Portable desktops such as the ones provided by Windows to Go can be helpful in certain situations, particularly if users spend lots of time working offline, but as a general rule they probably aren't the best virtualization alternatives.

Next Steps

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Provisioning desktop apps with Windows to Go

The changing face of virtual desktop access

Dig Deeper on Virtual desktop management