Though aimed primarily at software developers, last week's BUILD conference introduced a few new Windows 8 features that will make the lives of enterprise IT departments easier. Windows 8 Refresh and Reset will both make it easier to clean malfunctioning systems and restore them to a working state, and Windows To Go offers new deployment features using Windows installations that run directly from USB.
Refresh and Reset both revert Windows back to its system defaults. The difference between the two is the extent to which the system gets reset. "Refresh" preserves user settings, user data, and applications bought through the Windows store. Everything else is removed and restored to defaults. The process is quick, taking just a few minutes to complete.Reset goes further. It purges all applications and data, and reinstalls the operating system essentially from scratch. This reverts the OS to the same status as it would be after a brand new fresh installation; you have to reenter a license key and perform initial setup once complete.
Refresh and Reset both streamline a range of troubleshooting steps. Refresh handles situations where a system is behaving strangely for some reason—such as an application breaking a file association, or installing a load of unwanted startup programs—but which has valuable user data on it. Reset is for more serious problems, such as virus infection or some catastrophic system failure. It's also ideal for preparing machines for resale. Both are sure to win fans among both professional IT support and those lumbered with the often joyless task of aiding friends and family.
Windows To Go is an enterprise-oriented feature that enables users to run Windows from USB thumb drives. Deployment to USB media uses the standard Windows imaging and deployment tools, such as ImageX and WIM images, and the result is a fully featured Windows install. The USB install is fully self-contained—it makes no changes to a system's hard disk—and is fully updateable. New software can be installed, documents can be saved, Windows can be updated. It can be domain-joined and GPO-administered. The only downside is that the system might take a little longer to boot.
Microsoft has a few scenarios in mind for Windows To Go. Windows To Go images can be provided to contractors, who generally have their own PCs, to give them a trusted way of accessing corporate networks. Similarly, a company with employees who occasionally work from home could equip its staff with Windows To Go USB keys, so that they can use their home PCs to safely connect to their work environments. The technology will also be useful to organizations that use hot-desking and shared PCs; they can give users their own USB disk, and then no matter which machine the users are sitting in front of, they'll always get their own desktop and setup.
Making Windows To Go work has required a number of changes to be made to Windows. The biggest is how Windows responds to having the disk removed. Traditionally, Windows would crash with a blue-screen if its boot disk was removed, because removing the disk would leave it with no way of accessing its pagefile or other essential data. With Windows To Go, removal of the boot disk is detected and results in the machine being frozen for a minute. If the disk is returned during that minute, the operating system unfreezes and carries on as normal. If it isn't, it performs a shutdown.
The USB operating system also includes smarter support for hardware detection. The first time the USB key is booted on a new PC, it has to perform hardware discovery and detection. Subsequent boots on the same PC, however, can skip this step—the USB key remembers the drivers and devices found on each machine. This allows roaming between different hardware configurations to be both fast and seamless.
As Windows 8's development continues, Microsoft will reveal more business-oriented features. Improved BranchCache support, and GPO deployment of Metro style applications are both in the cards, and there are sure to be other updates to improve manageability and reliability. Reset, Refresh, and Windows To Go are sure to be joined by other features to make IT departments' lives easier.