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Windows to Go: Better (and easier!) in the RTM!

A couple of months ago I posted an article on Windows To Go (Windows To Go: This is going to be a game changer!) outlining the benefits and use cases for Windows to Go, as well as the steps to build your WTG key.  In the RTM release of Windows 8 it has gotten easier to build… no command line required!  Here’s what you do:

  1. SNAGHTML7498dFrom the Start screen type Windows to Go.  Make sure the context is set to Settings.
  2. Click on Windows to Go.
  3. Insert the USB 3.0 key that you will use for Windows to Go.  It should appear in the Create a Windows To Go workspace screen.  Select it and click Next.
  4. On the next screen you are asked to point to a Windows 8 image.  If you are using an ISO image rather than physical media make sure you mount it in Windows, and then navigate to the proper location.  Click Next.
  5. On the next screen you are asked if you want to set a BitLocker password.  Because it is assumed you will be using the Windows To Go key on multiple computers it used the same password technology as BitLocker to Go, rather than tying it to a TPM chip.  You can either check the option to Use BitLocker with my Windows To Go workspace, or click Skip.

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The next screen is the Ready to create your Windows To Go workspace screen.  When you click Create Windows will start building your key.  Depending on the speed of your key and your USB ports (USB 3.0 is highly recommended, but not necessarily available) it can take between five and twenty minutes.  Be patient, when the progress bar is complete, you will have your very own Windows To Go key ready to go!

It really is easy… and when you are done you will be able to take all of your applications, data, and preferences with you to any computer you use… even older Windows 7 (or even Windows XP!) systems!

Remember that I mentioned that one of the advantages to using Windows To Go is the ability to use unsecured computers safely.  For that reason, when you boot into your Windows To Go key the local hard drives will be off-line.  Likewise, if you insert your Windows To Go key into a computer running another installation of Windows, your USB key will be off-line.

I said it before and I’ll say it again; Windows To Go is a real game changer.  It is one of my favourite features of Windows 8, and one that I expect will have a lot of corporations looking at the new operating system, especially for road warriors, remote workers, and other employees who need to work away from the office.

By the way, remember that you may still need to install hardware drivers for different computer systems, the way you do on traditional Windows installations.  If you are planning on using the WTG key on multiple systems you might need to plan for that.  Recently I did a demonstration of the Windows To Go technology at HP Canada, and had to download the driver for their 42” touch screen.  It was worth it though… Windows 8 on a huge touch screen ROCKS!

When your Windows To Go key is completed you will be prompted to either save and reboot, or reboot later.  If you are building an individual key then you may want to reboot in order to install device drivers.

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For Bonus Points: Using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit you can build your own image of Windows 8 which will include your applications, drivers, and domain settings.  If you are building Windows To Go keys for your organization this might be a better alternative!

Making Your Windows 8 ISO work for You

English: A Sandisk-brand USB thumb drive, SanD...

English: A Sandisk-brand USB thumb drive, SanDisk Cruzer Micro, 4GB. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tomorrow is the day that a huge number of you will be downloading and installing the final bits (RTM) of Windows 8.  You now have an ISO image of Windows, and you need to install it onto your computer.  In order to do that you have to put it onto media – DVD or in many cases USB sticks.

DVDs are easy… since the introduction of the technology people have been burning .iso files to CDs and DVDs, thanks to such tools as Alex Feinman’s ISO Recorder.  All you need is a DVD burner and a blank DVD.  In fact in Windows 8 if you click on an ISO file in Windows Explorer there is an option to either mount or burn the image file (as seen)

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A lot of PCs these days – including but not limited to ultrabooks, tablets, and minis – do not have DVD players built in, and so USB keys (sticks, thumb drives) have become the preferred method of installation for many.  All you have to do is make it bootable and you are off to the races.  There are several ways to do that.

Because it has been available to us for so long, the method I use is tried and true – I use the Disk Partition Tool (diskpart.exe) in Windows.  Because DiskPart is so destructive it is a good idea to unplug any unneeded drives before proceeding, and then continuing with extreme caution.

  1. Open a Command Prompt (from the Start Menu type cmd.exe).
  2. From the command prompt type diskpart.exe and press Enter.  If you are using Windows Vista or later a UAC window will come up.  Click on Yes (or OK).
  3. SNAGHTMLb5dda52In the DiskPart tool type list disk to see a list of connected devices.  In this example you will see that I have three disks connected. – Disk 0 (238 GB) is my internal hard disk.  Disk 1 (14 GB) is an SD card that I plugged in to transfer pictures from my camera.  Disk 2 (3841 MB) is the 4GB USB key that I am using for my bootable Windows 8 key.
  4. Type select disk X (where X is the number assigned to your USB key)
  5. Type clean.  This will wipe everything off the disk, so be careful that you have selected the appropriate drive, and be sure there’s nothing important on it.image
  6. Type create partition primary.  This creates a primary partition on the key.
  7. Type assign.  Your blank partition now has a drive letter assigned to it.  You can check in Windows Explorer to see what letter it is.  The volume name will be NEW VOLUME.
  8. Format the disk.  The easiest way is to click on the NEW VOLUME in Windows Explorer and select the options for Quick Format.  You can also, should you wish, name the volume from the Format Disk window by entering the name (15 characters or less) in the Volume Label field.
  9. Type active.  This marks the partition as active.
  10. Type exit to close the DiskPart tool.
  11. Type exit.  This will close down your command prompt.

Our USB key is now bootable.  All that is left is to copy the contents of the ISO file (and not the ISO file itself) onto the key.  Use any tool that you like to mount the ISO file (such as Windows Explorer in Windows 8, or Magic ISO Maker in Windows 7) to mount the ISO file, and do a simple file copy from that drive to your thumb drive.  Depending on the speed of your disks it might take as long as 20 minutes on USB 2.0, but if you have USB 3.0 then it’s much quicker.

The next step is easy but often overlooked… when you boot your system there are two things you have to do:

  • Make sure the bootable USB key is plugged into the system before it POSTs.  If not it may not be considered a boot option.
  • If the USB device is not set first in the boot order (in your BIOS) then you have to select it manually.  Different PC makers make you press different keys (HP is F9, I think Dell is F12.  check your PC to be sure) to show you the Boot Device menu.  Most tablets will boot from USB first by default.

At this point you are ready to go… install Windows 8, and start playing.  It’s that simple.

Welcome to the world of 8… the luckiest number in Chinese, and the newest evolution on the desktop and tablet!

Virtual Hard Disks: Best Practices for dynamic / thin provisioned disks and other stories…

 sort of an armillary sphere (or at least a disk)

Virtual environments offer us many new options with regard to storage.  Whether you are using Hyper-V or VMware, a few of the options (and recommendations) are the same, even when the terms are different.

One of the options I am often asked about is dynamically expanding hard drives.  MY first reaction is that I am against them… and I have very good reasons for that, except that there are caveats to make them acceptable for a production environment.

Hyper-V has dynamically expanding disks, vSphere has thin provisioned disks.  They both do the same thing – rather than creating a file equivalent in size to the disk you are creating (say, 20GB on disk for a 20GB VHD) it will create a tiny little file that grows as data is written to it, up to the limitations set forth in the configuration.

Dynamically expanding disks make our VMs much more easily transported… it is quicker and easier to move a 6GB file than it is a 20GB file.  However in our server environments transportability is seldom a factor.  Performance and stability are.

The performance issue is not really a factor anymore… although the dynamic expansion of a file must on some level take resources, both Microsoft and VMware have made their virtual disks so efficient at the difference is negligible.  As for stability, I rarely see virtual disks corrupting because of expansion… unless they expand onto corrupt sectors on the physical drive, and even then the drives and operating systems are so good these days that seldom happens.

There are two main reasons I provision my virtual disks as thick/static disks:

  1. Storage is cheap… at least, it is cheaper than downtime.  If you need 5TB of storage for your virtual environment, you should buy it.  That way you know what you have, and don’t have to worry about a situation where your virtual disk file grows and fills the volume on which it is stored, which would prevent it (and any other dynamically expanding disks on the same volume) from growing, resulting in the virtual machines that are dependent on them to crash.
  2. Files fragment as they grow.  Fragmentation is bad.  Need I say more?

Now both of these issues do have mitigations that would, when necessary, allow you to implement dynamic/thin disks without risking these problems.  In fact, one of these mitigations will actually solve both issues:

  1. Under-provision your storage.  While this sounds a lot like the ‘Hey Doc, it hurts when I do this…’ So don’t do that! discussion, it is true.  if you have two virtual disks that can expand to 35GB residing on a 72GB volume, there is no threat of them filling the space.  This does not address the fragmentation issue though.
  2. Put each virtual disk file onto its own volume.  This mitigates both issues.  Unfortunately it also means that you are limiting the number of virtual disks you have to the number of hard drives (or LUNs) that you have.  Fortunately there is a mitigation for that too: partition! Bad for Quebec, but good for maximizing the number of virtual disks you can store segregated on a single drive.

When speed is a factor…

The partition plan does not address one more issue – the performance issue.  Mitch’s Rule #11 is very clear: more spindles = more speed = more better.  I have said this in class and on stage a thousand times, and I firmly believe that.  Every virtual disk that you spin up on a hard drive must share that rpms (and therefore the speed) with all of the other virtual disks on that drive.  Partitioning the drive does not change the fact that the multiple partitions still exist on the same spindles.

There are two answers to this: more spindles, or fewer virtual disks.  In larger organizations storage costs are easily justified and therefore accepted.  Smaller organizations very often have to make do with what they have, or often buy the cheapest solution (external USB drives, etc…).  This is never a good idea, but if you are going to use external drives make sure you invest in the fastest bus available – in other words, USB 2.0 is not a good option, and USB 3.0 or eSATA are better bets. 

What other options do I have?

Of course, we have not discussed two great solutions, but they are going to be a little costlier:

  • Storage Area Networks (SANs).  SANs are great because they allow us to take several disks in a unit and partition the total rather than the individual drives, and then we can share them across multiple hosts.  Absolutely every organization considering virtualization, no matter how small, should invest in a SAN device. 

I say invest because they are not cheap… a decent entry-level SAN should cost around Five Thousand Dollars ($5,000.00).

  • Raw Device Map (RDM) / Pass-through disks (PTD). This is a great functionality that ensures that a virtual machine gets the best performance available from the drive by giving it exclusive access to it.  It eliminates the worry of performance degradation due to resource sharing.

The downside to this is that you cannot partition the drive, and while you can create an RDM/PTD to a SAN LUN (Logical Unit Number) that does not change the fact that are limiting the number of drives you can have.  This functionality can also limit the portability of your virtual machines – neither Microsoft nor VMware prevents you from live migrating a VM with a RDM/PTD, but there is an added layer of complication.

Conclusion

While planning for resources is important in a physical environment, it is infinitely moreso in a virtual environment where resources have to be shared and virtual machines have to co-exist on the same hardware resources.  The ability to plan your storage strategy begins with a good understanding of the technologies, as well as an understanding of best practices and recommendations from others who have been there before.  I still wouldn’t use dynamically expanding disks in my servers, but with more and more people asking me about it I wanted to make my reasons clear, as well as outline the steps I would take if I were in a position where I had no choice.

Now it’s up to you!

Windows To Go: This is going to be a game changer!

Image representing Windows as depicted in Crun...

I have said before that I am not sure that Windows 8 is going to have the adoption rates that Windows 7 has had, and that it is more likely that Windows 7 will remain the dominant operating system in the enterprise.  If companies are going to be convinced to switch, it will be by new features such as Windows To Go (WTG), which allows us to install Windows 8 on a USB key, configure that key with our applications and security requirements (including domain join, group policy, Direct Access, and more), and then boot from that USB key on any computer in the world.

Cool!

So imagine you are visiting your in-laws in Podunk, and they have their trusty old Windows XP Home machine, and you can pop in your USB key, boot from it, do all of your work with all of your applications while connected to your corporate network, all the while without affecting their XP Home setup with their own games and stuff.

Requirements:

  • You have to build this USB key from a system running Windows 8.
  • You have to have a USB 3.0 port on that system (which is a requirement to build, but not to use Windows to Go).
  • You have to have the source media for Windows 8, which can be either an ISO or a DVD (or any media with the original install.wim file on it.
  • You have to have a USB stick that is compatible with Windows to Go.  Sorry folks, just any USB key that you get from a trade show giveaway will not work.  I use the Kingston DT Ultimate G2 16GB, which cost me a little under $70 on Amazon.com.  I hope that Microsoft will make a comprehensive list available soon, but nothing so far.

Step by Step: Create your Windows to Go key!

  1. Open a command prompt with Administrative credentials.  You are going to use the single most destructive tool within Windows, and you need to Run As Administrator to use it.
  2. Open the Disk Partition Tool (diskpart.exe).
  3. Type list disk (expert tip: you can save time by typing the first three letters of any command in diskpart, so lis dis would work just as well).
  4. Once you see the list of disks in your system, insert your new USB 3.0 key into an appropriate port.  Wait a few seconds, then type lis dis again.  Note the number of the new drive.
  5. Type select disk # .  Make sure that # is the number of the new drive or bad things will happen!
  6. Type Clean.  This command will destroy everything on the drive – files, partitions, all gone.  See why I call it destructive?  There is no Undo command.
  7. Type create partition primary (cre par pri).  This creates a new partition on the key.
  8. Format the new partition by typing format fs=ntfs quick.  It will only take a few seconds (hence the QUICK command switch).
  9. To make it a bootable disk type Active.
  10. Assign a drive letter to it by typing assign.
  11. Exit the Disk Partition Tool by typing exit.
  12. Mount the Windows 8 media (if you have an ISO) or insert the disk into the drive.
  13. At this point you have to check the drive letter for both the USB key and the Windows 8 media.  These will be different for each machine, but for my example we will say that the USB key is F: and the Windows 8 media is G:.
  14. Now we have to apply the Windows 8 image to the key.  Navigate to the Windows 8 media and type:

dism /apply-image /imagefile=g:\sources\install.wim /index:1 /applydir:f:\ 

You should receive output that looks like this:

Applying image

[===============40.0% ]

The above line is your progress bar, and when it reaches 100% the image will be completed.  You then have to type the following command to create the Boot Configuration Data file which allows your computer to select an operating system:

bcdboot.exe f:\Windows /s f: /f ALL

That should do it… try booting from the key (many systems need for you to press F9 or F12 to select the boot menu when turning on the system, and will not see the USB key unless it was booted plugged in.  Select the key, and if it boots from the key then you are now the proud owner of a Windows to Go key!

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