IronKey Workspace review: Windows 8 PC on a stick

Imation's new USB drive uses Windows To Go to create a fully functional Windows 8 PC on any computer.

Imation's IronKey division has released a USB 3.0 flash drive from which users can directly boot up Windows 8. Aimed at businesses, the IronKey Workspace USB drive allows employees to telework from home, consultants and others to work in multiple locations, and field personnel to access their corporate desktops from virtually any PC.

IronKey's new USB is certified to use Windows To Go -- an enterprise feature of Windows 8 -- to deliver a fully portable desktop. Windows To Go can be booted up from a USB-connected external drive on PCs that meet the Windows 7 or Windows 8 certification requirements, regardless of the operating system running on the PC. While Imation doesn't promote this feature, users can also boot up this USB on any Intel-based Apple computer.

The Imation IronKey Workspace USB flash drive

A cool feature of Windows To Go is that it suspends the session when the USB device is removed from the host computer. Plug it back in and you can pick up where you left off, and no data is lost.

The IronKey Workspace drive comes in 32GB, 64GB and 128GB capacities. It offers either 128-bit or 256-bit full disk encryption. Users must purchase the Windows 8 software separately.

Nothing new

Bootable USB drives are nothing new. Kingston's DataTraveler Locker, Corsair's Flash Padlock 2 and even Imation's own Stealth Zone allow users to boot up from flash into a secure Windows 7 workspace. And you've always been able to install Windows onto some flash drives to boot up. The flash drive's firmware needs to identify itself as a bootable drive -- most don't, but some do.

Gary Gerber, a senior product marketing manager at IronKey, points out that unless a USB drive is Windows-certified, Microsoft won't support it. Then you have to consider that not every USB flash drive is made to take the I/O per second (IOPS) that is required of this drive. And NAND flash wears out fairly quickly without special firmware to extend its life.

"This thing is acting as your hard drive. Unlike a normal flash drive, where you might write and read a file to it now and then, you're constantly reading and writing to it," Gerber says. "In fact, this thing actually runs faster than a lot of internal hard drives. You can conceivably speed up your computer by using it."

The IronKey Workspace is also notably lacking the administrative management features that other Imation drives offer. For example, Imation delivers the ability for administrators to remotely control access to or delete data on its Stealth Zone flash drives, a feature that it hopes to include later this year on the IronKey Workspace drive.

Additionally, this drive can't be used for external storage, meaning you can't create a separate partition for data storage, and you can't run your computer's native OS and store data on it. That functionality, which Imation calls "cross-over storage," is currently available on Imation's Stealth Zone flash drives and will be available in the second generation of the Workspace W300 flash drive, Gerber says.

Good quality drives

Admittedly, I've always been partial to IronKey's USB drives. They were the first to use 256-bit AES encryption, and the flash drive cases are one piece of seamless metal, so you can't pry them open to have your way with the high-end flash chips inside. I have successfully broken into other USB drives and bypassed hardware-based security to access the data.

Imation bought the hardware business of privately-held IronKey in 2011. IronKey has arguably made the world's most secure flash drives.

IronKey storage devices have also been validated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to meet the stringent Level 3 criteria of FIPS 140-2. Combined with the cloud-based IronKey Enterprise Management Service, data security can be managed and audited from anywhere in the world. The IronKey Workspace flash drive, however, is not FIPS-certified.

"This year we will be introducing IronKey Workspace products that include features such as hardware encryption, device management, cross-over storage, mass provisioning and FIPS Level 3 certification," says Ken Kadet, Imation's global public relations manager.

What has also set IronKey apart from other USB flash drives in the past is that it uses high-end single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash memory chips as opposed to multilevel cell, consumer-grade (MLC) NAND. SLC has better native performance over MLC and, perhaps most importantly, it has as much as 10 times the lifespan, up to 100,000 write/erase cycles.

The newest drives, like the IronKey Workspace, use MLC, which is less expensive than SLC but, with new firmware, offers nearly as fast data transfer rates.

Imation's says that, because of the drive's architecture, it delivers over five times the minimum read/write performance required for Windows To Go-certified devices.

Setting up

Because most computers boot up from their internal hard drives, you'll need to change your BIOS settings to boot up from this USB device; it's a very simple process.

First, insert the drive into an external USB port while the computer is powered off (or simply restart it). Before Windows has booted up, you'll need to press either the F2 or F12 key, depending on your PC. That will bring you to a BIOS setup screen, where you can choose to boot up from an external USB device.

What's interesting is that this drive is even easier to boot up from a Mac. All you have to do is hold down the "alt" key on boot-up and you'll be offered an external disk icon from which to boot up. I tried it with my MacBook Pro, and I had no issues. There I was running a Windows 8 machine on my Apple.

The first time the flash drive is used, the system will ask you to accept Windows' licensing terms; once you agree, you're given a wide choice of background colors and the ability to name the machine.

Next, you're asked to choose the wireless network you'll be using (if, of course, you're using one). You'll then be asked to choose your personal settings, such as turning on the "Do Not Track" feature in Internet Explorer and sharing with other devices on your network (i.e. printers). Instead of wasting time on customized settings, I chose Windows' express settings setup.

Next, a screen pops up and asks you to use your favorite email address to sign into Windows (they actually promise not to send you spam). Lastly, Windows has you set up a user name and password.

At a Glance

Ironkey Workspace

ImationPrice: $129 (32GB), $215 (64GB), $389 (128GB)Pros: Great performance, convenient for mobile workers, works on Windows and OS X systems, mative encryption, quality constructionCons: Doesn't come with Windows 8 installed, can't be partitioned as a storage device, lacks administrator management features, lacks FIPS security certification (coming later this year), expensive

Once you're signed into Windows, you can download apps from the Windows Store, have online content run automatically using Microsoft apps and synchronize settings such as your browser history, account picture and background color.

I'd never used a Windows 8 machine before, so I was impressed with its tile interface -- and even more so that I could simply unplug the USB drive and carry my personalized Windows machines and all my apps and data around with me.

Performance

According to Imation's specifications, the IronKey Workspace has a maximum average read speed of 300MB/sec. and an average write speed of 100MB/sec. to 200MB/sec. Unfortunately, my Sony Vaio uses a USB 2.0 (480Mbps) external port, so it may not have taken advantage of the full throughput this USB 3.0 drive can offer.

When I timed the boot-up times, the initial boot-up from the USB drive was slow -- 3 minutes and 40 seconds -- but the drive was configuring itself. Subsequent boot-ups took a mere 35 seconds. Shutdown is near instantaneous -- about 2 seconds.

Bottom line

The IronKey Workspace USB flash drive can be found on Imation's retail site for $129 for the 32GB model, $215 for the 64GB model and $389 for the 128GB drive.

Solid state drives, even external ones, can typically cost less than $1 per gigabyte of capacity. So when I saw the price of this flash drive was almost four times that, I was a bit shocked. Admittedly, you're getting a high-quality external flash device that will act as an internal drive, but I still believe the price should come down -- and hopefully eventually it will.

Overall, I really like the IronKey Workspace USB drive. It's made by a reputable company and offers great security features and quality construction. If you have need of such a device, I'd recommend this one.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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