Windows 8 is immediately recognisable from its Metro interface – but it’s a less visible feature that could prove transformative, especially for businesses. With the aid of the Portable Workspace Creator, you’ll now be able to export an image of a running Windows 8 installation to a USB flash drive – which can then be booted on a different PC, giving portable, hardware-independent access to the system, applications and data.
Windows To Go
The system is called Windows To Go, and is part of the Enterprise edition of Windows 8 thus isn’t active in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. When Windows To Go is first booted on new hardware, it will try to automatically locate and install the necessary drivers. These drivers are then assimilated into the image, so this needs to be done only once per physical system. If you remove the flash drive while using Windows, the PC will freeze and wait for up to 60 seconds for you to replace it. If you don’t, it will shut down, leaving no footprint on the host PC.
Running a computer off a USB flash drive brings a few challenges. Local storage is likely to be limited, and the disk itself is easy to lose. The system can be protected with full-disk BitLocker encryption, so you needn’t worry about thieves gaining access to data. But losing access to one’s entire OS could nevertheless be disastrous. If you’re using a system such as Windows To Go, it’s a good idea to keep your data in the cloud, using the likes of Microsoft’s SkyDrive; if the worst should happen, your personal data remains safe.
It’s a concept that opens up new possibilities for businesses, technical support engineers and even home users wanting to keep an emergency backup of their OS. The good news is that you needn’t wait for the final release of Windows 8 to enjoy the benefits of Windows To Go.
Booting from external media
Windows 8 is the first desktop version of Windows that’s designed to boot from a USB flash drive or external hard disk. Windows 7 will refuse to install onto a removable drive, and if you use disk-imaging software to duplicate a running system onto an external disk, it simply won’t boot. It’s possible to hack the installer to get the desired effect, but the result won’t be very satisfactory. You won’t have the security of full-disk encryption (unless you’re using an Ultimate or Enterprise edition of Windows); disconnecting the disk will cause the OS to crash; and if you hit problems, there’s no technical support.
Things are much easier if you’re happy to use a different OS. OS X has long supported booting from an external USB (or FireWire) disk. To prepare an external drive for use as an OS X system disk, just format it with at least one OS X partition and a GUID Partition Table, and ensure “Ignore ownership” is disabled. You can check this by right-clicking on the disk in the finder, choosing Get Info and checking the Sharing & Permissions section of the Info window that opens. The regular OS X installation procedure will now allow you to install the OS to this drive, and modern Macs will boot from it happily.
If you prefer Linux, there are plenty of distributions designed specifically to be run from external media. Ubuntu Linux, for example, lets you boot straight from the installation CD or DVD into a running OS – a so-called “Live CD” system. This isn’t ideal for everyday use: optical media is comparatively slow, and it’s read-only, so unless you want to make only basic use of the system, you’ll need to install drivers and applications on the local hard disk – or customise the image.
Ubuntu also supports installation directly to USB devices, as do several other distributions, including Fedora, Gentoo and Knoppix. With the help of a network storage system such as the free Ubuntu One, it’s feasible to use “Linux To Go” in much the same way as is promised for Windows 8.
WinPE & WinBuilder
What if you need to run Windows applications? As we mentioned above, desktop editions of Windows aren’t designed to run smoothly from “live” media, but a cut-down version of Windows designed for precisely this role does exist. It’s called the Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE). It’s available for free download from Microsoft as part of the Windows Automated Installation Kit; if you’ve installed Windows in the past few years you’ve probably already used it, as WinPE is the lightweight OS that starts up when you boot from a Windows installation DVD.
The standard distribution of WinPE includes basic support for things such as disk management and networking, but lacks important features: for example, there’s no support for printing or 3D games. Uptime is limited, too: as Microsoft explains, “to prevent its use as a pirated operating system, Windows PE automatically stops running the shell and reboots after 72 hours of continuous use”. This makes WinPE, as supplied by Microsoft, an unsatisfactory alternative to Windows To Go.
Yet this doesn’t mean WinPE can’t be useful. The freeware WinBuilder application lets you combine elements of desktop Windows with the WinPE core to create a bootable, portable Windows XP, Vista or 7 system.
If you want to build your own live system, you’ll need the original installation files for the OS you want to use, and some technical knowledge, as WinBuilder gives you an embarrassment of options as to which features, applications and drivers should be included in your build. You can also customise the scripts to create a bespoke set of applications and features. See our walkthrough on p79 on how to build a live “Windows 7 To Go” system.
Note that, since WinBuilder projects combine elements of two different products (WinPE and desktop Windows), the licensing situation is unclear. Microsoft hasn’t so far sought to restrict the use of WinBuilder projects, but we recommend you treat your live installation as an extension of your regular desktop OS, rather than a replacement – and don’t distribute copies to others.