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Pocket Workplace

IN RECENT YEARS, IT departments have feverishly virtualized their servers and desktops, using software that lets them run multiple applications and operating systems off the same hardware. With most desktop virtualization, a central server connects to multiple office workstations, usually consisting of a monitor and a keyboard but no hard drive.

But a new form of desktop virtualization—placing special streamlined versions of applications on USB drives—is promising to let employees take their workstation anywhere whether they’re connected to a central server or not. While these applications have existed for a few years, typically offered as free downloads, they haven’t been adopted by many organizations. But that could be changing: some major vendors of these applications made special for USB drives are bundling their products with various central administrative controls and other business-friendly features.

An example is the new Virtual Desktop Solution (VDS) 1.0 from MokaFive. Its software lets IT administrators bundle their own operating system and application packages in the data center. Once placed on a thumb drive and remotely plugged in, the applications automatically receive security and software updates.

The MokaFive solution also includes a “poison pill” technology: if the stick is lost, it can be programmed to self-destruct the next time someone attempts to use it. MokaFive has also geared the software particularly for flash drives. It uses compression technology to fit more applications on USB drives’ memory. The company’s “predictive fetch” technology also speeds the rate at which the applications launch. Still, the company recommends running the apps from higher quality thumb drives with a minimum read/write speed of about 30 megabytes and 20 megabytes per second.

MokaFive is one of a small cadre of firms providing these types of applications. Another major vendor, Santa Clara, California-based RingCube Technologies, also recently rolled out a centrally administered product, MojoPac Enterprise 2.0.

RingCube and MokaFive virtualize their software in two distinct ways. While MokaFive’s platform runs on the computer’s hardware, MojoPac runs on the operating system software. MokaFive says its method is superior because it is both more secure and more flexible. The hardware-based platform lets employees use the apps on Windows, MAC OS-, or Linux-based machines.

Cutting the applications at the hardware level also leaves less data behind, according to MokaFive, which is a key benefit of this approach, whether working from home, at an airport, or in a client’s office. Programs such as Windows’ Vista are complex, says MokaFive CEO John Whaley. “Small data files can be left on computers; the division is messier,” he says.

Others downplay the difference. “A good design from any one of these vendors will route all temporary files and browsing history to the USB stick so there’s no permanent trace,” says Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald. RingCube also claims its product is faster than hardware-based competitors, as virtualized hardware can consume almost half of a processor cycle.

RingCube’s new solution also includes the option to include a Virtual Private Network (VPN) client from San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems.

Using these virtual systems may also cut the risk of malware in part because they are new and malware isn’t yet targeting them and in part because the companies have worked to isolate their programs from the host computer as a security measure. MokaFive also has a patented “Rejuvenation” technology, which lets users recover from some problems by shutting down and rebooting. In addition, some companies, such as MokaFive and MojoPac, offer antivirus software that is compatible with their products.

MacDonald says companies looking for virtual applications should first determine their own needs. Some firms might only anticipate using Windows systems, and they might, therefore, only need applications that divide at the application level. Other organizations might primarily want the devices for VPN capability.

MokaFive says about 50 organizations are piloting its VDS.