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Windows To Go explained

Posted by Alin D on October 31, 2012

With its Windows 8 feature called Windows To Go, Microsoft has turned the quaint USB stick into the key to transforming employees’ personal desktops into Windows 8 corporate desktops.

Though Microsoft claims that Windows To Go enables bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs, it may be quite limited in the types of devices for which it will be useful.

Windows To Go lets IT boot a full, managed corporate Windows 8 image, along with users’ business apps, data and settings, to a Universal Serial Bus (USB) device. End users can then plug that USB stick into their own PCs or laptops to run a corporate Windows 8 desktop.

Using Windows To Go, “IT organizations can support the ‘Bring Your Own PC trend’ and businesses can give contingent staff access to the corporate environment without compromising security,” Microsoft said in a blog post on Tuesday.

But there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the technology. It is still unclear whether Windows To Go will actually work on popular non-Windows devices such as tablets. During a session on Windows To Go at its Build show last year, Microsoft provided a developer preview that could only be booted to x64 systems with a Windows Vista or Windows 7 logo.

This week, Microsoft offered no new information on whether the final version of Windows To Go will work with iPads, Android tablets, netbooks or other non-Windows devices.

Microsoft did say on its TechNet site that Windows To Go will not work on its Windows 8 ARM tablets. In addition, Windows 8 on ARM won’t connect to corporate domains, so enterprises that planned to integrate Windows 8 ARM tablets into their IT environments won’t be able to do so easily. (The Apple iPad doesn’t connect to corporate domains, either.)

“I can understand them not supporting Windows To Go on ARM, as it is a more locked-down version of Windows 8 anyway — so not really set up for enterprise users that are more likely to use Windows To Go,” said Ben Lowe, a consultant for the Tribal Labs blog who tested Windows To Go.

Although non-ARM Windows 8 tablets will also exist, it’s unclear whether Windows To Go will run on them.

Microsoft didn’t mention running Windows To Go on Apple’s Mac, but at least one developer has booted it on a MacBook Air.

While Windows To Go will certainly give companies a way to turn employees’ personal Windows machines into corporate Windows 8 desktops, it may not be much use in BYOD shops.

Lowe said he initially hoped that Windows To Go would provide “work/travel/home device nirvana,” where he could have an ARM-based tablet set up for the family that he could plug his work Windows To Go USB into and use for business trips and meetings.

Lowe said he also imagined plugging the USB into a dumb PC to turn it into a Windows 8 desktop. “Unfortunately, I can’t imagine that flicking between ARM and 64-bit hardware would ever work,” he said.

Still, the Windows To Go concept does hold some appeal.

“I use the law library at a local law school from time to time,” said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis firm in Kirkland, Wash. “Instead of carrying my PC there, I could just take a USB drive with Windows To Go and use one of the computers they have in the library.”

In addition, questions about Windows licensing remain unanswered. Since Windows To Go is a corporate desktop feature, it may require Microsoft Enterprise Licenses and Software Assurance. Licensing will also determine use on non-Microsoft devices. Some analysts also wonder whether companies will have to buy a second copy of Windows.

“The answer to the licensing questions will answer how useful the [Windows To Go] approach is,” Cherry said.

Microsoft would not address questions about Windows To Go licensing this week.

As for management, once the Windows 8 USB drives are in use, IT managers can service the Windows image the same way they would handle a laptop or PC, using Group Policy or software distribution mechanisms. When a user logs on, the policies are pushed down to them, according to Microsoft.

IT can also encrypt Windows To Go by using passwords and BitLocker protection — which would minimize concerns about lost or stolen USB sticks.

Using the Windows To Go preview

Loading a Windows 8 Consumer Preview ISO image onto a USB 2 stick takes over four hours — plus a couple more hours to configure, Lowe said. He added that it would take far less time to load Windows 8 onto a USB 3.0 — which Microsoft recommends using.

Microsoft has not published hardware requirements, but it said during the session at Build that Windows To Go should be used on systems that minimize hub depth to external ports, firmware that supports reliable USB boot and Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) firmware that supports USB-class boot entries. It requires at least 32-GB drives.

Each boot on new computer can take 20 minutes to install drivers. After booting from the USB, Lowe said, the user interface is sluggish for roughly five minutes.

“Once it’s all there, then it seems quite snappy but really struggles again when trying to open apps — so much so that some Metro apps just won’t load,” he said. “Windows Update doesn’t seem to work either.”

Posted in Windows 8 | Leave a Comment »

Windows 8 multi server administration with RSAT

Posted by Alin D on October 16, 2012

For those used to connecting via Remote Desktop and performing all of your admin that way, these tools represent a major break from that tradition. They’re installed on a local client and allow you to perform the vast majority of high-level administration tasks at a distance.

Here are some of the main benefits that come from using the newest incarnations of RSAT.

Multiserver administration. It almost goes without saying that a major advantage of using Server Manager on a remote client is the ability to manage multiple servers at once. What’s particularly new in RSAT for Windows Server 2012 is the ability to manage multiple servers at a glance by role. All servers that have a file-and-storage-services role can be examined in a single dashboard view. Anything that needs action, whether on a given server or within a given server role across multiple servers, is called out with quick links to the appropriate administrative tools. This cuts down on the amount of blind rooting around needed for a given admin task.

Security. The less a given administrator has to touch the server desktop, the better. This is not just because there are some things he might be better off being compartmentalized away from. Access to the desktop means that it can be easier to make a foolish mistake with a broad and detrimental impact (for example, mistakenly deleting the wrong directory). Using a remote management tool confines the admin’s behavior to making only needed changes, and it also confines users with reduced privileges to only making the changes they’re allowed to make.

Automation. This isn’t to say automation (via PowerShell, of course) isn’t possible when directly connected to a Windows Server 2012 system. But the capabilities of PowerShell 3.0 allow for even better automation than before from a remote host via functions such as disconnected sessions, the PowerShell Integrated Scripting Environment and workflows.

Remotely administering Server Core. Server Core was slightly expanded in Windows Server 2012 to include a stripped-down GUI called the Minimal Server Interface. However, like so many other Server Core components, it’s optional and not mandatory. If you’d rather keep your Server Core configuration stripped down andreduce the amount of interaction with Server Core for safety’s sake, you can perform all of your Server Core management behaviors via remote admin.

Remotely administering offline images. Role administration through RSAT isn’t just something you do to live servers; it’s something you can do directly to images of servers stored in virtual hard disks (VHDs), even if those VHDs are offline. This is another sign of how thoroughly Windows Server and Hyper-V have become complementary.

There are some great benefits in using RSAT in Windows Server 2012. But as with all benefits, there are other things to keep in mind. These are some of the potential caveats when using RSAT, thanks to the changes it imposes.

Get the right version for your client system. Microsoft has different versions of RSAT for different Windows clients, including 32- and 64-bit, as well as Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. These versions are not cross-compatible with each other since the installer for each edition contains components specifically for that OS version.

In Windows 8, for example, the tools for managing Hyper-V are native to Windows 8 and don’t need to be installed because part of Windows 8 has its own local implementation of Hyper-V. This is one of many small incentives Microsoft has implemented to promote the adoption of Windows 8 in the enterprise, but it has limits. One of these limits? Windows RT for ARM architectures does not have any RSAT tools.

Bear in mind the backward compatibility of the tools. The current generation of RSAT allows for the administration of previous editions of Windows Server, which should be welcome news for admins presiding over a mixture of Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2012 systems. Now for the bad news: Not all of the features in previous Windows Server editions can be managed through the current RSAT generation. Some of this is due to the features in question simply not existing in previous editions of Windows Server. Another reason may be because the management of that particular feature can’t be accomplished in the same way. I recommend taking a look at this article; it has a good rundown of which earlier-edition features can and cannot be managed through RSAT.

Start with the client tools, not the desktop. This one is for those of you still dealing directly with Windows Server 2012. Get used to the new tools as quickly as you can because you’ll get more out of them once you’re used to them. Many people grumbled about the way Windows 8 boots into the new Modern UI menu (also known as Metro), and the same grumbling has come with Windows Server 2012 also using the Modern UI menu. Some of these complaints are justified. The more common complaints about the new UI include it being somewhat jarring, heavily simplified and seemingly out of place on a server. On the other hand, the new menu exposes direct links to the very tools that an administrator will be spending most of his time with, which can provide the best distillation of the administrative experience.

Posted in Windows 8 | Leave a Comment »

Data deduplication from Windows 8 improve storage

Posted by Alin D on March 17, 2012

Data deduplication is nothing new. Third-party vendors have used it for things like shrinking backup storage and WAN optimization for years. Even so, there has never been a native deduplication feature in the Windows operating system. That’s about to change, however, with the release of Windows Server 8.

Like the third-party products that have existed for so long, the goal of Windows Server 8’s deduplication feature is to allow more data to reside in less space. Notice that I did not say that the deduplication feature allows more data to be stored in less space. Even though Windows Server 8 will support storage-level deduplication, it also supports deduplication for data that is in transit.

Storage Deduplication

Even though deduplication is new to the Windows operating system, Microsoft products have used various methods of increasing storage capacity for quite some time. For instance, the Windows operating system has long supported file system (NTFS) level compression. Likewise, some previous versions of Exchange Server sought to maximize the available storage space through the use of Single Instance Storage (SIS). Although such technologies do help to decrease storage costs, neither NTFS compression nor Single Instance Storage is as efficient as Windows Server 8’s deduplication feature.

According to Microsoft’s estimates, Windows Server 8’s deduplication feature should be able to deliver an optimization ratio of 2:1 for general data storage when it ships late this year. This ratio could increase to as much as 20:1 in virtual server environments.

How Storage Deduplication Works

The reason why Windows Server 8’s deduplication feature will be more efficient than Single Instance Storage is because SIS works at the file level. In other words, if two identical copies of a file need to exist on a server then Single Instance Storage only stores a single copy of the file, but uses pointers to achieve the illusion that multiple copies of the file exist. Although this technique works really well for servers containing a lot of identical files, it doesn’t do anything for files that are similar, but not identical.

To further illustrate this point, consider the invoices that I send to my clients each month. The invoices exist as Microsoft Word documents, and each document is identical except for the date and the invoice number. Even so, Single Instance Storage would do nothing to reduce the space consumed by these documents.

Deduplication works at the block level rather than the file level. Each file is divided into small chunks. These chunks are of variable sizes, but range from 32 KB to 128 KB. Hence, a single file could be made up of many chunks.

The operating system will compute a hash for each chunk. The hash values are then compared as a way of determining which chunks are identical. When identical chunks are found, all but one copy of the chunk is deleted. The file system uses pointers to reference which chunks go with which files. One way of thinking of this process is that legacy file systems typically treat files as streams of data. However, Windows Server 8’s file system (with deduplication enabled) will treat files more as a collection of chunks.

Incidentally, the pre-beta version of Windows Server 8 uses file system compression. Whenever possible, the individual chunks of data will be compressed to save space.

Data Integrity

One of the major concerns often expressed with regard to deduplication is file integrity. Although the odds are astronomical, it is theoretically possible for two dissimilar blocks of data to have identical hashes. Some third-party products solve this problem by recalculating the hash using a different and more complex formula prior to deleting duplicate chunks as a way of verifying that the chunks really are identical.

Although Microsoft has not specified the exact method that it will use to preserve data integrity, the Windows Server 8 Developer Preview Reviewer’s Guide indicates that the operating system “leverages checksum, consistency, and identity validation to ensure data integrity.” Furthermore, the operating system uses redundancy for certain types of data chunks as a way of preventing data loss.

Bandwidth Optimization

As previously mentioned, Windows Server 8 will allow for the deduplication of both stored data and data in transit. Deduplication techniques similar to those that were previously described are going to be integrated with BranchCache as a way of minimizing the amount of data that must be transmitted over WAN links. These early builds suggest that the native deduplication feature will be able to conserve a significant amount of storage space without adversely affecting file system performance.

Posted in Windows 8 | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


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