I came across a press release this morning from a memory manufacturer touting one of its first products designed to work with "Windows To Go," a new feature of Windows 8 that claims to allow a fully functioning copy of Window 8 to be placed on a USB stick and booted on any computer capable of running Windows.
For enterprise IT, the benefits are obvious. Rather than purchasing and provisioning a machine for each employee, the employee can bring their own hardware, which they likely prefer to your standard-issue "grey box" machine, and boot your company-approved image from the flash drive. Since they're not actually booting into the OS on their machine, concerns about viruses and drivers are mitigated, as are worries about updating and supporting every hardware platform that comes through the door. In addition, replacing a lost "machine" is as easy as providing a new USB stick. Broken hardware and loaner pools become less of a worry, and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs come with the benefit of getting your IT department out of the hardware business, all while maintaining corporate computing standards.
All sounds wonderful in theory, yet this technology has a stronger presence in the realm of marketing literature than real-world experience at this point. Questions ranging from how these computers on a stick can be remotely wiped, to how an IT department manages, tracks, and licenses tiny, cheap USB keys loaded with high value corporate assets abound. However, this seems a worthwhile technology to watch and experiment in as part of a more general Windows 8 pilot.
Exiting the hardware business
End-user hardware has always been a painful part of most IT organizations, and is a business most CIOs would gladly exit. Sinking money into buying, provisioning, tracking, and issuing thousands of laptops is an expensive proposition-and an increasingly thankless one, as users wonder why they can't use their shinier or faster hardware rather than the standard-issue clunker. Imagine the front-line employees dedicated to dealing with hardware, from purchasing to junior support executives, all caring for and feeding an activity that adds little value to IT or the overall organization.
Technologies like virtualization and computers on a stick promise a reasonably safe exit from this business and follow a trend that divorces the traditional relationship between hardware and software. Most organizations have some experience with data center-level virtualization technologies, where physical servers are virtualized and consolidated, ultimately making provisioning new servers a matter of a few mouse clicks rather than a complex procurement and logistical process. Even mobile devices have become beneficiaries of this type of technology, with companies offering a "phone within a phone" product that allows corporate-approved applications and connectivity that's isolated from the rest of an end-user's phone.
Driving this trend in the end-user space is an increasing personalization and commoditization of technology. While many of these devices were once simple tools, for many consumers the choice of a laptop or mobile phone is as complex and fashion sensitive as a suit or pair of shoes. While many in IT attempt to resist the influx of consumer devices, the proposition of exiting the hardware business is one that should not be overlooked. Where else can you find an opportunity to save money, abandon a non-productive activity, and create excitement and positive PR among the end-user community? As the technology matures, computers on a stick might be a great way to reach this nirvana.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.