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.

IronKey W300
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. Windows 8 requires 16GB of storage for the 32-bit version and 20GB of storage for the 64-bit version, so you might find yourself choosing a higher capacity drive right off the bat.

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 workload that is required of this drive. 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.

However, the newest drives, such as the IronKey Workspace I tested, 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.

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