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USB flash drives get to work

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

August 18, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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, 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. 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.

This USB drive from reseller 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.

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.)

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