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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Jump drives can rescue you or get you into trouble

May 26, 2008

I've seen a lot of computer oddities in my career, but a piece of sushi sticking out of the computer case was admittedly a new one. And then there was the squid, the Lego block, and the strawberry. They were all flash drives from a Japanese company called SolidAlliance (www.solidalliance.com). You can go to its site, but don't expect to read it unless you're fluent in Kanji.

"Flash drive" is just one name for the little devices you plug into your computer's universal serial bus (USB) port to act as a diskless disk drive. Another common term is "thumb drive." Computers treat them just like any other disk drive. You can read and write to them, just like hard disk drives and floppies. Flash drives have become one of business computing's quietest revolutions. Everybody has one now. Companies give them away as marketing tchotchke. I still have my first one, but I've picked up several more over the years. Some have little rings for hanging on key chains, something I don't recommend, because the rings tend to break.

You can operate several of them together on a single computer. I carry a "USB hub" for that very purpose. Conference organizers give out flash drives that are preloaded with the proceedings. Salespeople hand out presentations to prospects on the little things. They can survive crushing, immersion, freezing and the stickiest-handed child. They'll work on any modern computer just by plugging them in. I like them a lot, but I'm not blind to their drawbacks.

For one thing, they're costly, even though they're cheap. Sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. Computer storage is rated by cost per megabyte, a unit of memory roughly the size of a million bytes. Today's hard disk drives, the kind tucked away inside your computer's case, can be as big as a terabyte, one trillion bytes, enough to hold all the data any small company will produce in its entire lifetime, for around $300.

At that price, you get 1 trillion bytes, or 1.05 million megabytes, for about 0.02 cents per megabyte. A $25 two-gigabyte flash drive is 1,024 megabytes, or about 2.5 cents per megabyte, more than two orders of magnitude more expensive for what you get. Of course, you can't haul a one-terabyte hard drive around with you easily. And flash-drive manufacturers are steadily raising the storage capacity while lowering the price.

Another reported difficulty with flash drives is that they're likely to fail with repeated use. It's true that super cheap ones may die anytime, but even mediocre models can last through hundreds of thousands of read-write cycles, more than any casual user will ever subject them to over a lifetime. Yet another criticism is that flash drives are limited at present to 64 gigabytes, as compared to the massively larger storage capacity of even cheap hard drives. But again, that's not a problem for most business users, who won't begin to fill up that much space unless they're transporting blueprints for a Boeing 787.

Another, less-heralded problem is that thumb drives are easy to lose. Clunkier storage mechanisms don't get mislaid as easily. My wife has lost any number of flash drives. I keep control of mine by never letting them far away from my briefcase. Some of the current thumb drives are smaller than fingernail clippers, and more elusive.

They're both a security risk and a security enhancer. They're a risk because you can lose them so easily, and they're also easy to steal by just slipping into a pocket. Tales have emerged from Iraq of soldiers stopping by Iraqi vendors' stalls and finding for sale flash drives previously lifted from their barracks. Used thumb drives elsewhere have proven to contain sensitive data when the owner looked inside. Oddly, the same feature makes flash drives a security enhancer because you can hide your data in a tiny package, even in your sock if need be, getting it off the laptop and making it far less conspicuous.

The ease of losing a flash drive to negligence or theft has prompted some makers to incorporate security measures into their drives. Information Week had an article about 12 of them back in March (www.informationweek.com). One security approach is encryption. This is pretty good security, but sometimes annoying in real use, because some encryption schemes require software on the host computer, so if you trot the thumb drive to a computer that's sans encryption software, it won't open. These drives generally require a password, which means you have to keep yet another nonsense string in your head.

Some drives go way beyond encryption and add biometrics. Kanguru (www.kanguru. com), for example, has thumb drives with built-in fingerprint scanners as well as encryption and password protection. Theoretically, even if it's stolen, nobody can get into your data without both your password and your thumbprint. This gives the term "thumb drive" a whole new meaning.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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