USB flash drives get to work

Drives can encrypt, store PC settings and will soon have 64GB of memory

USB flash drives have evolved from their initial use as marketing tchotchkes to devices capable of addressing corporate needs ranging from mobile computing platforms to files stores with encryption and biometrics protection.

Winson Yu, vice president of sales in North America for reseller USB007.com, said he has watched thumb drives evolve at a staggering pace. Yu began his career 20 years ago selling 5MB hard drives for IBM. Today, he sells thumb drives half the size of a stick of gum with 8GB capacity, which are expected to jump to 16GB capacity by the end of the year. USB007.com sold tens of thousands of 8GB drives to a Fortune 500 company as part of a corporate data backup plan. The company, which asked not to be identified, said it is using the drives for its 10,000-person sales force.

"For them to back up their laptops by going through the network is not very viable. So they've installed software on their laptops, and every couple of days it prompts them to plug in the [thumb drive] to back up their data. It's a scheduled operation for them," Wu said.

Another Fortune 500 company that USB007 sells to uses thousands of the thumb drives to upgrade software on stand-alone machinery at remote locations that had previously required the use of a laptop. Business uses of USB thumb drives are clearly expanding. Joseph Unsworth, a principal analyst at research firm Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said he too sees growing thumb drive use in the corporate ranks. Unsworth said drive adoption is about to see another big boost from Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, which, through its ReadyBoost function, will allow thumb drives to cache applications for faster computer boot times, in some cases twice as fast as conventional start-ups.

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This USB drive from reseller USB007.com displays the owner's identity and the capacity remaining on the drive.

Microsoft's Vista also addresses what's perhaps the biggest concern of IT managers related to USB memory sticks — their potential to make it easy to walk away with proprietary corporate data. Vista adds new system policies for controlling USB flash drive access to computers. An IT manager could set a policy that would prevent a flash memory device from working with the USB ports on a computer, while still allowing the USB port to be used with other devices.

It's also easier to secure data stored on USB drives. SanDisk Corp. makes a biometric thumb drive, which stores up to 10 fingerprints and comes with a guarantee that no one besides the owner will be able to access any data on the drive. U3 flash drives come with programs such as Secret Zip, PCLock, and Data Synchronizer.

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USB flash drives today come in a variety of form factors -- from whacky to techy sleek -- and with the capability to store entire desktops for mobile computing, including security features such as encryption and biometrics. There are models that display available capacity and even water-proof drives for SCUBA divers to carry personal medical information.

Expanding possibilities

Over the past two years, the thumb drive has outpaced by one and a half times other hardware devices in terms of storage capacity growth.

According to Gartner, more than 110 million USB thumb drives will ship worldwide this year, accounting for more than $3 billion in sales. By 2008, the number of flash drives shipped will have increased to 155 million a year. (These drives can be fun as well as practical. See The lighter side of USB thumb storage.)

And USB drive capacity is outpacing Moore's Law by doubling every year instead of every 18 months. Capacity of those drives is expected to leap from 16GB for most manufactures by the end of this year to 32GB in 2008.

Kanguru Solutions in Millis, Mass, has jumped ahead of the pack with its Kanguru Flash Drive Max, which comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions. The only catch is that capacity comes at a price: $800 for 16GB, $1,500 for 32GB and $2,800 for 64GB. (For more information, see Kanguru offers 64GB flash drive.)

Program and data portability

Some USB drives have recently developed the capability to run sophisticated applications, replicate e-mail and transfer desktop and laptop settings, directly from the USB stick in conjunction with any Windows PC.

Last fall, SanDisk and M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers Ltd. launched a thumb drive with an intelligent U3 chip that lets you to store and launch applications, such as Skype for VoIP, Trillian for instant messaging and Mozilla's Firefox Internet browser. (In late July, SanDisk announced that it was buying its former competitor, M-Systems, for $1.6 billion).

The U3 chip, manufactured by U3 LLC.  in Redwood City, Calif., comes in thumb drives with capacities up to 4GB that are able to store an entire Windows desktop. The drive can store user preferences, profiles and settings. You can plug the thumb drive into another person's PC or laptop and use it as if it were your own. Your e-mail program and browser, for example, can run from the USB stick on any Windows PC with all your messages and bookmarks and settings intact. It will appear as if the programs were installed on the local PC, when they're actually on the USB drive.

U3 technology comes with sophisticated security features, including conventional passwords and 128-bit AES encryption. It also allows users to choose from a series of photos, which authorize access if a user clicks them in the right order.

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Lexar's top of the line is fast and offers advanced power features.

Also last fall, Lexar began shipping its competing software, PowerToGo, which is available on all of its JumpDrive USB Flash drives. PowerToGo lets you store and access programs by installing and running many standard Windows applications directly from a USB flash drive. One feature Lexar says is popular, and unique to its PowerToGo-equipped JumpDrive, is that all cached data is stored on the USB drive, leaving no evidence of its use on the host computer. The use of U3 drives may leave behind empty folders on the host computer.

PowerToGo offers compatibility with more than 100 pre-approved applications, including Windows 2000 or XP, Skype and Firefox. Another advantage to PowerToGo is that it is Windows Vista compatible; SanDisk's U3 technology does not currently support Vista.

PowerToGo also offers some application flexibility. When users want to install a Windows application that doesn't appear on Lexar's list of pre-approved PowerToGo applications, they can pay $29.94 to purchase a platform add-on called InstallAnything, which will enable installation of many standard Windows applications in JumpDrive products.

JumpDrive Lightning owners can install the PowerToGo software free of charge from Lexar's Web site.

Lexar's premium JumpDrive Lightning thumb drive offers the fastest data-transfer rates(18MB/sec write and 24MB/sec read). The JumpDrive Lightning is available in 1GB and 2GB capacities at retail prices starting at $79.99. We tested the Lightning drive and we were able to download a 150MB file with high-resolution digital photographs in about 12 seconds.

Pushing into new areas

Steffen Frank Hellmold, general manager for Lexar's USB flash drive business unit, says that because the thumb drive industry is basically devoid of standards, other than the USB-port connection, "there's room for tremendous creativity."

ATP Electronics Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif., built its waterproof Petito drive to store the personal information of scuba divers and its ToughDrive USB flash drive to withstand a three-meter dive onto concrete.

SanDisk touts a drive that's over the top in the rugged department. Its Cruzer Titanium was built to withstand the crushing force of a Volkswagen Beetle (2,000 lbs.) Computerworld tested that claim by repeatedly driving an employee's car over the ruggedized thumb drive. While the drive's body came away with a few scratches, there were no dents, and we didn't lose a single file.

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Drive a car over it and it keeps working. How's that for mission critical?

Gartner's Unsworth says the thumb drive has become an almost ubiquitous data storage platform that spans all industries. Car stereo makers, such as Blaupunkt, Alpine, Kenwood, JVC and Clarion, are introducing models with USB ports and adapters this year. Blaupunkt has released two stereos with USB ports that have music and image capability.

Samsung Corp. and Toshiba Corp. are selling televisions with USB ports that enable shows to be recorded to thumb drives and other USB-enabled storage devices.

Yet another popular model of thumb drives doubles as an MP3/MP4 player. iPromo LLC., a reseller in Northbrook, Ill., offers 8GB thumb drives that have MP3/MP4 capability and can store several hour-long movies and hours of music. iPromo also sells thumb drives with electronic displays that show the owner's personal ID and the drive's remaining capacity.

Charles King , an analyst at Pund-IT Research in Hayward, Calif., says thumb drives may quickly outpace a user's ability to manage all the data stored on it. "When you've got your MP3 player with 5,000 songs on it, God only knows what you do with all of those. I can barely think of 50 songs that I want to hear on a regular basis," he said. "It's like having a garage that you just keep piling boxes of [junk] into."

For more on USB drives, see The lighter side of USB thumb storage.

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