What's in the Zone?

The Portable Workspace

Posted by indroneel on April 21, 2007

The term ‘workspace’ means different things to different people depending on the context in which it is used. In this article we shall use this term to denote the set of applications and associated data pertaining to an user’s daily activities on a single computer.

The user’s workspace is a dynamic environment. Applications are added or removed, usually using installation processes defined by the underlying operating system. At the same time, data associated with those applications are continuously modified. Workspaces tend to get fragmented over time with application files and user data spread across multiple folders in totally unrelated paths such as user profile, system and application root directories. All these factors make the workspace non-portable.

A portable workspace is one that can be moved across multiple computers without requiring repeated installation, customization and data setup. Such repetitions can be quite an overhead if your workspace includes applications that are non-trivial in nature (e.g. office suites, Web browsers, mail clients, multimedia tools and development environments to name a few).

The Need for Portability

The need for workspace portability can stem from any combination of factors and situations. Given below are some scenarios that might prompt you to go for a portable workspace.

  1. You spread your work between a home computer and an office computer. You want to have identical setups on both the machines with data portability across machines.
  2. At work you have access to a shared computer only. It is not possible to maintain separate user profiles (settings and data) for the applications installed.
  3. On your office machine you need to have some extra applications for your personal needs. Your corporate policy does not allow for the installation of such applications.
  4. You are working across multiple locations and need to have a working environment setup as painlessly as possible.

Portable Applications

A portable workspace comprises primarily of portable applications. These are freeware (and at times open source) softwares that have been specially modified to be deployed on any hardware without a formal installation process. At runtime, portable applications do not touch system resources like registry or copy into system folders. Data is maintained locally by these applications or at designated places configured by the user. Portable applications can be used and later removed without leaving traces, either as user data files or profile settings.

Portable applications are usually bundled as compressed archives (e.g. ZIP) or executable compressed archives (e.g. ZIP SFX). The latter option removes the dependency of having a compression tool (e.g. WinZIP) installed on the host computer, for deployment.

Install once and use anywhere: With the prevalence of removable media, it is now a common practice to setup a user workspace, including applications and data, on USB drives and CD-ROM (live CD distribution). Many portable applications are specially optimized to work on such removable media with read/write restrictions.

The number of portable applications available are too numerous to enumerate in this article. The list below contains the name of some well known ones that you are most likely to use in your daily activities.

  • Portable OpenOffice: a complete office productivity suite and a replacement for Microsoft Office.
  • Portable FireFox and Thunderbird: Web browser and email client. See my previous posting, ‘Browser on Steroids’, to setup and configure FireFox for a more productive surfing experience.
  • Portable GIMP: The GNU Image Manipulation Tool is the freeware equivalent of Adobe PhotoShop and similar image editing tools.
  • VideoLan Media Player: Probably the best media player out there.
  • Portable 7-Zip: Archival utility with support for a wide variety of compression formats.

Setting up a Portable Workspace

Identify the applications that you need as a part of your workspace. Download the corresponding binaries (use the links at the end of this article) and have them available locally.

Select a folder on the local file system that should form the root of your workspace. Install each application into separate sub-folders under the workspace root.

Install a start menu program to serve as the common launcher for all applications within the workspace. I personally recommend Pegtop PStart. Setup the start menu with information about the applications to be launched.

Some applications require that you run them at least once for creation of a default configuration set and required data files. Run these applications, preferably using the start menu program. If you want certain applications to have an initial customization and data setup, you should perform the necessary customizations during this first launch.

Compress the whole of your workspace folder, including sub-folders and files, into one ZIP archive. Use this as the base image to quick create your workspace on any machine. If possible, burn the ZIP archive and a suitable unzip utility into a CD-ROM and keep the latter handy.

If you have a USB drive, such as a pen drive, you might consider having your portable workspace setup on the same. Note that read/write operations are at a premium on flash drives (too many read/writes reduces the life of the disk) and not all portable applications are optimized for the same.

As a final note, after you setup a portable workspace on the target machine, you might want to create a shortcut to the start menu program and place the same on your desktop for better accessibility. This should be the only trace that you leave behind once you remove the portable workspace (by deleting the workspace root folder).

Resources and Links

[1] The Wikipedia definition of portable applications.

[2] The portable applications suite for Microsoft Windows platform available from

[3] The Portable Freeware Collection with a huge listing of applications organized into categories.

[4] Handy programs to put on a USB drive at

[5] Nedwolf’s collection of Best Free Portable Software for Windows.

[6] Lupo PenSuite: a suite of portable programs and games for a pendrive.


5 Responses to “The Portable Workspace”

  1. Hi Neel,

    How does this compare with using vitual application bundle ( using something like Altiris SVS ) or a virtual server snapshot lets say for VMWARE?

    and carrying that around ? of course you will need these virtual servers everywhere you go to load them on – which isnt entirely portable – but then you can move around heavily registry dependant applications like microsoft office suites!!

  2. indroneel said

    Both Altiris SVS and VMWare fall under the category of emulators. While Altiris SVS is an OS-level emulator, VMWare is a complete hardware emulator.

    Emulators are usually heavy on resources and low on performance. While the corresponding virtualized data image can be carried around on a USB drive, it would still require an emulator installation on each target machine. And these emulators are usually not cheap on the price.

    Portable applications, on the other hand, are OS-specific applications that run natively without any kind of emulation. Wherever required, they have been patched (from source) so as not to write into the Windows registry or alter the system files.

    I would make use of virtualization technologies when I have to test out an application under different configurations without having to install multiple operating systems on different machines. A good example would be having to test a Java-based enterprise application on both Windows and Linux.

  3. suzanlawrence said

    This article is very true and very well written. Portable workspace has become virtually indispensable nowadays. There are many different versions out today, and the one I have found to be my favorite is I-Flapp. Not only is it easy to use, it provides security of file transfers from one computer to the other. Then nice thing about I-Flapp is I can carry my desktop to any computer regardless of the applications that are installed on the pc.

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