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Why Windows To Go doesn't hold a candle to desktop virtualization

Anything Microsoft Windows To Go can do, desktop virtualization can do better. Even though the uses may be limited, the Windows 8 USB tool might be handy for working at home.

With Windows To Go, Microsoft is late to the game by several years. Finding a use for Windows running on a USB device might be difficult, especially when desktop virtualization can do the same job just as well -- if not better.

Going through the BriForum Chicago submissions, I saw more than one session about using Microsoft Windows To Go, Windows 8's USB-installed option. One submission wouldn't be terribly surprising, but seeing three or four made me wonder if I was missing the point.

When I look at Windows To Go, I see technology that everyone wished we had four years ago. Anyone who really needed the technology went out and got it in the form of a client hypervisor or some other supported -- or unsupported -- offering.

So why Microsoft Windows To Go, and why now? Let's look at a few of the purported uses for this Windows 8 USB tool.

Turn any PC into a corporate PC

On the surface, this use for Windows To Go looks brilliant. Who wouldn't want to carry around a Windows image that worked on any device? You could bring your USB drive or stick with you, plug it in anywhere, and in a few minutes you'd be working on your corporate desktop.

What's easier to lose: a USB stick or a laptop?

Actually, wait. I don't want to do that, not on a USB device. That's the sneakernet of desktop virtualization! Why would I want to walk around with my desktop in my pocket? That means it's off most of the time, and it's a nightmare to manage because it's only patchable when it's plugged into something and booted up. Plus, you could lose the device and, well, there go your data and apps.

You might be thinking, "Yeah, if you keep your apps and data on the device, but you'd keep that in the data center." You're absolutely right! So, why would you keep your desktop on a USB stick even though you rely on the network and centralized apps and data for everything else? Put the desktop in the data center along with the apps and data so you don't have to worry about users running around with their own copies of Windows in their pocket, leaving them at airport security checkpoints. What's easier to lose: a USB stick or a laptop?

Another reason I don't think this is the best use for Microsoft Windows To Go is that if virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) or Remote Desktop Services (RDS) isn't in the cards, you can still do this with a client hypervisor. With a client hypervisor, you maintain all sorts of added flexibility, including security, encryption, management, device agnosticism and so on. Sure, client hypervisors aren't the answer to everything, but there's rarely a situation where Windows To Go makes more sense than some sort of desktop virtualization.

A more appropriate use for this Windows 8 USB tool, I think, is to turn any PC into a thin client. Boot a PC up to a Microsoft Windows To Go image and you're presented with a limited local experience that's sufficient enough to run a few browser apps and connect you to your centralized desktop, applications and data. That may sound boring, but at least it's practical.

Work at home, disaster recovery

I was immediately turned off by this use for Windows To Go, but the more I consider it, the more useful I think the Windows 8 USB option can be in certain home use or disaster recovery situations. Microsoft Windows To Go would be valuable if your primary desktop virtualization-based disaster recovery plan failed, for instance.

Adding Windows To Go to the mix just seems like added complexity, unless it's a USB stick in a glass box labeled, "In case of emergency, break glass." It sounds tongue-in-cheek, but let's face it: The most effective type of disaster recovery is either using some aspect of desktop virtualization or business-as-usual (whatever desktop deployment technology you currently use).

For work-at-home situations, though, I can see some valuable uses. In ultra-secure environments where an unmanaged endpoint is just too risky, Windows To Go could work.

As it stands, using traditional desktop virtualization on unmanaged devices still carries an element of risk in terms of prying eyes spying on the content, watching keystrokes and so on. While the data and apps themselves are safe, what's on the screen might not be. Barring physical devices watching keystrokes and snagging video data, sending users home with a Windows To Go device that their home PCs boot directly to is more secure. It's just that the use case is quite limited.

More on Microsoft Windows To Go

Windows To Go delivers Windows 8 corporate images via USB

Windows 8 FAQ

Other uses for Windows To Go

These are some other scenarios where Windows To Go might make sense:

  • Temporary/contract workers
  • Roaming users
  • Offline use

The list actually goes beyond this, focusing on certain verticals such as education or manufacturing, but the end result is that we can do everything Windows To Go can do better with desktop virtualization technologies. Even the venerable "offline use" can be done with client hypervisors. All these things cost extra money, which is, admittedly, a big reason people will probably use Microsoft Windows To Go, but organizations that needed technology like that got it without waiting for Microsoft to put it out. Those offerings are now in advanced versions, while Microsoft's Windows 8 USB option is on version 1.

There's an old saying that goes, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." It means that just because you can do something, it doesn't mean that you should. The same holds true with Windows To Go. Evaluate it, but make sure you look at the alternatives, too.

About the author:
Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

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