Windows 8: How to Set Up Windows To Go

by Joseph Moran

Windows 8 running on a bootable USB storage device can be a boon for small businesses with telecommuters, contractors or temporary workers.

The phenomenon of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), which typically refers to employees using personal smartphones to access business email and other corporate data, is a trend small businesses must increasingly contend with these days.  

But BYOD can present a challenge beyond just smartphones. It can also come into play if a small business workforce includes telecommuters, contractors or temporary workers, because rather than outfitting remote or transient workers with company-owned PCs, many organizations opt to allow such workers to bring personal computers into the company's IT environment in order to do their jobs. Whether it involves using foreign computers on-site or connecting remotely from afar, the practice can result in significant IT support costs and also pose serious security risks to the organization.

Windows 8 offers a potential solution to this aspect of the BYOD dilemma with its Windows To Go feature. In a nutshell, Windows To Go affords businesses the capability to create customized and self-contained copies of Windows 8 on bootable USB storage devices, in turn giving workers a secure and portable corporate Windows "workspace" that they can run on their own computers.

Windows To Go Hardware and Software Prerequisites

As is so often the case with anything from Microsoft, Windows To Go comes with its share of prerequisites and caveats, so here are the basics you need to know if you want to put Windows To Go into practice.

Windows 8 Enterprise

Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t include Windows To Go with Windows 8 Pro, the mainstream business version of the operating system. It only comes with Windows 8 Enterprise, which you can’t buy in a box or obtain pre-installed on a PC.

To get Windows 8 Enterprise, you can either sign up for Microsoft’s Software Assurance volume licensing program (pricing varies -- minimum of five PCs required), or its cloud-based Windows Intune PC management and security service ($11 per PC, per month), which automatically includes upgrade rights to Windows 8 Enterprise for any PC already running a Professional or Business version of Windows 7/Vista/XP. To take Windows 8 Enterprise for a spin gratis, you can download a 90-day evaluation version.   

A "Certified" USB 3.0 flash drive

Microsoft only supports Windows To Go when used with USB 3.0 flash drives that have been "certified" for use with Windows to Go. As of this writing, only one line of certified SuperTalent USB drives is available for purchase, but as the official October 26th 2012 launch date of Windows 8 approaches, you can expect the selection of certified drives to expand with offerings from Kingston and probably other vendors as well.

Windows To Go; Windows 8

Figure 1: "Certified" USB 3.0 drives are recommended (and the only ones officially supported) for use with Windows To Go.

In the meantime some, but not all, non-certified USB 3.0 drives will also work with Windows To Go -- more on this in a moment. To ensure enough space for Windows, applications and data, Microsoft recommends using at least a 32 GB USB drive.

A "host" system capable of booting from a USB port

Any computer on which you plan to use a Windows To Go device must be able to boot from a USB port. Just about any PC built in the past 5 years or so should be able to do this. (Windows To Go doesn’t work on Macs.) While USB 3.0 ports are not required on host systems, they’re preferred for performance reasons.

Creating the Windows To Go drive

To create your Windows To Go USB drive, insert it into your Windows 8 Enterprise PC and make sure you have the Windows 8 Enterprise DVD in the drive. Press the Windows key + W to search the system Settings, then type "Windows to Go," and press Enter to launch the Create a Windows To Go workspace wizard. Highlight the drive you want to use and click Next.

Note: if the Next button is grayed out, the drive you’re using isn’t compatible with Windows To Go. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear how Microsoft determines drive compatibility. Two of the four USB 3.0 devices we tried didn’t work, but the wizard unfortunately doesn’t specify what makes a drive incompatible.

The wizard will locate a Windows 8 image file, which is called install.wim and located in the \sources folder of the Windows 8 Enterprise DVD. (Note that this image file contains a standard out-of-the-box copy of Windows 8 Enterprise. If you want to create an image file with customized settings and applications, there are several ways to do so. Here’s one way to do that.)  

Windows8; Windows To Go

Figure 2: You will find a generic Windows 8 image file on your OS disc. With some extra effort, you can make image files with customized settings and software.

You’ll have the option to use BitLocker to encrypt the Windows To Go workspace (you can skip this and activate BitLocker later), and then, the Windows 8 image will be created on the USB device -- a process that will take a while and destroy any existing data on the USB drive.

The last choice the wizard presents you with, Choose a boot option, pertains to the computer you’re using and not the Windows To Go device itself. Since you’re presumably going to use the Windows To Go device in a system other than the one you used to create it, choose No, then click Save and Close.

Using the Windows To Go Drive

Insert the Windows To Go USB device into a host system while it’s turned off. You’ll either need to configure the system BIOS to automatically boot from a USB port, or else invoke the boot menu when you turn on the computer and choose the boot from USB option.

The first time you boot from a Windows To Go device, it will take several minutes to configure itself for the hardware in that particular computer and then reboot. Afterward, you’ll be prompted to accept the license terms, personalize the copy of Windows, connect to a network and then be off and running. Windows 8 will behave as if it was installed on the system’s hard drive, but it will be running entirely off the USB drive.

To get the most out Windows To Go, keep the following caveats in mind:

  • You must boot from a Windows To Go device in order to use it. If you insert it into a PC while Windows is already running, the operating system won’t recognize it.
  • Windows To Go devices must be plugged directly into USB ports located on a computer, not into a USB hub.
  • Never remove a Windows To Go device while the workspace is running. If you do, the system will freeze and wait 60 seconds for the device to be reinserted. If the drive isn’t reinserted or inserted into a different USB port, the system will shut down at the end of the 60 seconds. And even if you do reinsert the drive into the same port within the 60 seconds, there is still the possibility of corrupting your Windows To Go workspace.
  • To maintain the security of the Windows To Go workspace, the USB Windows To Go USB device can’t see the hard drive(s) of the host system it’s running on. Therefore, you can’t use a Windows To Go device to repair a computer or recover files from it.
  • Although Windows To Go devices must be USB 3.0 compatible, you can still create one on computers that only have USB 2.0 ports.

Windows 8’s Windows To Go feature can be a useful tool to help businesses deal with the BYOD phenomenon. You can get more details on Windows to Go at Microsoft TechNet.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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This article was originally published on Monday Sep 24th 2012
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