Hardware idea: USB to Ethernet and 1GB Flash Adapter

OK, So I’ve purchased tickets to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas this week ( January 2014 ), and I’ve given myself a project to do while down there. I would like to talk to some Independent Hardware Vendors about a new USB Device I would like to see made. Hopefully I can convince someone that a device like this has some technical merit.

The idea is pretty basic, I would like a USB to Ethernet Adapter with a 1GB flash drive built in. And I would like it to look like a basic USB to Ethernet Adapter like this:
Dongle1

Background:

I purchased a new Microsoft Surface Pro device at Microsoft’s TechEd 2013 event last May. I love the device, lately I’ve been using it as a test environment, re-loading Operating Systems on the device every couple of weeks or so.

In order to install a *new* operating system on the Microsoft Surface Pro you have two options:

1. Purchase the USB to Ethernet Adapter from Microsoft. Microsoft has included the drivers for this specific controller in the firmware for the Surface device and boot from your PXE/WDS Server. Note that not all USB to Ethernet Adapters will have driver support in the Surface uEFI so if you want to boot from PXE you will need this adapter.
2. Otherwise, you can put the MDT LitetouchPE_x64.iso WinPE boot files on a USB flash drive (about 300MB), or create Litetouch Offline Media disk (about 4GB).

The problem is that the Surface Pro machine only has one USB port, so if you want to boot from the USB stick *and* connect to the internet to download the latest OS and updates over the network, you will also need a USB hub. I’ve been trying some various hubs, and some are not identified by the Microsoft Surface uEFI Firmware. However I have had success with the Belkin F4U029. I have also been using the Cisco USB300M USB to Ethernet Adapter, which appears to have driver support built into WinPE, but does not have driver support in the Surface uEFI Firmware.

Here’s my Surface Pro OS Installation Tool:

Diagram

WP_20140106_003

But I’ve been thinking, and this combination (design), has some technical merits. The problem right now with small Tablets/Ultrabooks, is that they are cutting down on the number of external ports (really I’m OK with this), and the surface is a classic example. No built in Ethernet, and only one external USB port. Additionally, the USB to Ethernet adapter supported on one Tablet, may not be supported by another Ultrabook. Are IT departments expected to keep a large collection of USB Adapters around to support each device just to PXE boot?

But really, there’s nothing really special about PXE booting. It’s just going out to a server to get a WinPE image. WDS/SCCM/MDT will do the rest. If you put the boot image from SCCM or MDT on a flash drive as small as 512MB, you can emulate the PXE boot process to continue, that’s where the flash drive comes in.

For an average IT department, a single USB HUB+Ethernet+Flash device can provide full OS installation from SCCM/MDT without having to keep multiple USB-Ethernet Adapters, or werid dongles. And the device would be universal for all laptops and tablets. Easy!

My idea would be:
• The USB Hub must be recognizable by the Surface machine (Some hubs are, some are not, I don’t know why).
• I would not use USB 3.0. WinPE may not have full USB 3.0 controller support. USB 2.0 only
• It would be nice to have Gigabit Ethernet. Gigabit is faster than USB 2.0, and slower than USB 3.0.
• All devices should have in-box Windows 8.1 ADK WinPE driver support. (easier).
• The flash drive should be around 1GB (you could have around 3 boot images), although 8GB would also be nice (most images are 8GB and less).
• The flash drive should be reasonably fast.
• It would be *nice* if the USB Flash Drive could emulate a Fixed hard disk (do not include the Removable flag). That way IT departments can “hide” the main partition, yet it would still be available for booting. (Similar to the hacks done on Windows to Go media (WTG).

Some more advanced work (future) would be to:
• Create a runtime library that could discover the nearest PXE server from within WinPE.
• Then create a process to find out if there are any updated WinPE images on the server, auto update the USB flash drive, and reboot again.

We’ll see if I can convince anyone to make this device.
If you are an IHV, and are interested in making this device, let me know!

-k

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