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Pros and cons of delivering desktops with Microsoft Windows To Go

After a year experimenting with Windows To Go, an expert recommends the technology but says to watch out for corrupted drives and other problems.

Windows To Go offers desktop administrators a different way to deliver desktops to users, but it comes with a few caveats.

Microsoft isn't dead, and it won't be any time soon. It's true that Apple has been the innovation juggernaut for a while, but it has categorically ignored the enterprise (by design). Microsoft went quiet and worked on a concept for how it could fundamentally shift the way you work, and the company has done it with Windows To Go.

I've had the luxury of working with Microsoft Windows to Go for about a year and a half now, before nearly anybody else knew what it was. Here's what I've learned in that time: The technology works, but you have to be smart about how you use it.

Windows to Go is essentially an entire operating system on a USB stick. It is touted by Microsoft as a way to extend your corporate presence to any device that employees take with them, so it could be an alternative to desktop virtualization for some organizations. Depending on how you do the math, you can save your company on average between 17% and 22% on total hardware purchases by no longer buying client systems (at least based upon the figures and anecdotal evidence I've seen).

Still, if you're a desktop virtualization administrator interested in Windows To Go, make sure you understand how it works and what the downsides are.

What's good about Windows to Go

First of all, it works. You can deploy an image to a USB stick very easily using the available standard tools within System Center Configuration Manager. Take that USB stick and connect it to a device, and voilà -- you have a corporate desktop. It also includes any security settings you want (i.e., BitLocker, VPN connections, and so on) so you don't have to do those manually on each device.

Second, there is no latency on it. Previously, admins have tried to handle bring your own device (BYOD) via the virtual desktop, but there is an input latency that can drive your employees crazy, particularly if your virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) hosts are in another country. With Windows to Go, there is none of that.

Third, it works on devices running most other operating systems. I have tried it on Windows 7 and Windows 8, so I can't tell you if it works on an XP system. I have also tried it on devices running Linux, Android and OS X and it worked, albeit with some driver limitations in the Mac space. That's easily fixable though: Combine it with a product such as Parallels and you can get yourself out of trouble there.

Things to watch out for

Microsoft Windows To Go won't work with just any USB stick. You usually need some of the more robust and high-capacity USB sticks to handle it. Microsoft provides a compatibility list, and you'll really need to provision these USB sticks in your office. Don't try and provision them remotely; they've been notoriously unreliable for us.

It also doesn't work with just any device. Make sure that the drivers for your specific hardware are available on the USB stick. You can usually get around this by having the user download the relevant drivers on their device beforehand, but be careful with network and wireless drivers. If you don't have those on your USB sticks, you can run into some trouble right out of the gate.

I mentioned before that you can include BitLocker on your USB stick image. But if you want to use BitLocker, make sure that the devices people select have TPM chips, otherwise it won't really work. This means that you can't buy the $200 netbook special at Best Buy and expect it to work in a corporate environment.

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Windows To Go

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Windows To Go hardware requirements

How memory-stick makers prepare for Windows To Go

Perhaps the most irritating part about Windows to Go is that the USB sticks can get corrupted. If that happens, there's no way to recover the data as far as I can tell. However, you can get around this by educating your users to make sure that they save their data on network drives or in the cloud.

Windows to Go is still in its infancy in terms of adoption, but it has a tremendous amount of promise. In my environment, it may be the first time that we've been able to have a serious discussion about full BYOD support. Still, Microsoft Windows to Go is not a cure for bad desktop delivery habits. If you don't fix the habits, the technology won't be able to save you.

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