Features

Flash drive technology: Thanks for the memory

1 Jun 2006 by business traveller
Memory sticks, thumb drives, universal flash drives — call them what you want, the chances are you have bought, or been given, one of these in the last year or so. According to our survey on businesstraveller.com, 86 per cent of you now use some sort of USB storage device to carry and transfer data, and with worldwide sales set to top 100 million this year, not having a memory stick will soon be akin to living in the dark ages. Simple to use (but also simple to lose), USB flash drives have revolutionised the way we carry around information. A fraction of the size of a floppy disk (remember them?), even the smallest 32MB capacity drives will hold many times the data previously possible, and with several companies set to launch 16GB drives — that's 16,000MB — later this year, it will soon be possible to hold pretty much everything from your PC hard drive on a stick small enough to carry on a keychain. Compatibility isn't an issue either, with most memory sticks working on both PCs and Macs, and while all new drives are made with USB 2.0 technology, they will still work on older computers with USB 1.1 drives, albeit at a slower rate. The huge growth in popularity of flash drives has led to prices plummeting by as much as 50 per cent in the first half of this year alone; a 1GB stick can now be picked up for as little as £25. This has obvious advantages for the consumer, but the cheaper something becomes, the less care the owner will take of it. This is fine if all you have stored on your memory stick is the latest Eminem album and some holiday snaps, but a different story entirely if you are carrying around the details of a million pound contract in your pocket. Matt Fisher, spokesman for Centennial Software, which provides software to protect companies against loss or theft or information on PCs and flash drives, says: "The problem is that when someone buys a laptop for £1,000, they will happily pay another £200 to put software onto it to protect the data. In contrast, when they buy a £20 memory stick they view it as disposable, without any consideration for the value of the data they have stored on it." Centennial has carried out research revealing that over two thirds of people who use a memory stick have also lost one, and of those drives lost, 60 per cent had critical business information on them. As few of these sticks have software to encrypt the data stored on them, that means an awful lot of information out there that could potential fall into the wrong hands. "Over half of the European working population now has a removable storage device, be it an iPod, flash drive, PDA or smart phone," says Fisher. "Their use has become so prolific that there is very little companies can do to stop employees owning them, so what we have done is look at the problem from a different angle. We say, 'fine, have an open door policy as far as allowing employees to own a flash drive, but also have software installed which will stop personally owned devices connecting to your corporate network.'" Centennial has developed "Devicewall", software which intercepts Windows' "plug and play" service (the software which enables your PC to recognise and run your MP3 player or memory stick when you plug it in), and finds out whether the device has the correct privileges to be allowed to connect with the PC. The latest version of the product can also force encryption onto a flash drive, meaning that even if an authorised device gets lost or stolen it will be rendered useless. This encryption can take the form of a global key, meaning that the data on the drive can only be accessed by any PC within the company network, or a personal key, meaning that the operator would also need to know a password to operate the stick. Early adopters of this type of software have included financial and banking centres, government institutions such as the NHS where patient confidentiality is essential, and smaller firms such as architects and electronic design companies, which live or die by the strength of their intellectual property. For those not wanting to splash out on a software solution, there are many memory sticks out there with in-built protection, as Gerald Greig, product manager for technology provider Integral, explains: "The basic way to protect the information on a flash drive is with a password (typically up to 16 characters) which works in the same way as, say, protecting a document within Word. We try to make the security functions as simple as possible for the user, as the last thing we want is people jamming our support line because they can't access their memory stick." Flash drives with biometric protection are also available, although Integral has until now baulked at offering one due to the temperamental nature of the technology. Says Greig: "The problem with biometric protection is that it only takes a small amount of dirt or a bit of water on the scanner, and it won't work when the user comes to activate the stick. In this instance the drive has to be returned to the manufacturer in order to recover the data. We are looking at new technology to overcome this, and hope to have an improved biometric drive out later this year." Greig say that the current "sweet spot" for USB flash drives (the point where sufficient capacity and greatest value for money coincide) is around the 512MB mark, giving consumers enough space to store music, pictures and documents, all for around £15. Capacity has risen so quickly that some companies are stopping production of sticks holding 128MB and below, as they are simply no longer cost-effective. He also points out that there are alternatives to USB flash drives — portable hard disk drives (HDD) remain popular due to their higher capacities — but the sturdy nature of memory sticks has helped the growth in their popularity. "The only problem with HDD is that they are more fragile than memory sticks," says Greig. "They have moving parts that can be damaged when dropped, whereas flash drives are solid state and so much more hard-wearing. However, there is only so much memory we can currently fit into a memory stick, so above 16GB, HDD remains a viable choice." The flexibility of flash drives as a marketing tool has been duly noted as well, with companies eager to offer preloaded sticks both to consumers and employees. Integral provides a service whereby it will load branded memory sticks with a Powerpoint presentation or slideshow, with the added bonus that the user does not have to have the specific application on their PC in order for the file to run (although they will not be able to edit or save the file). The educational and entertainment sectors are also looking closely at the technology, with everything from GCSE chemistry to the latest blockbuster soon to be available on a flash drive, providing copyright issues can be overcome. Greig points out that drives can be configured so that while their content can be downloaded onto a PC, it will only be accessible if the drive is plugged into the USB port, preventing users from forwarding the data to friends and colleagues. So with such a rapid growth in popularity, where next for memory sticks? U3, a joint venture between Sandisk and M-Systems (which provides USB flash drives for the likes of Memorex, Kingston and Verbatim) has developed technology which allows users to carry and run applications from their flash drives. Nathan Gold, senior director of partner development for U3, says: "Until now, most people have been using memory sticks to drag, carry and drop files. But with U3 software it is possible to run Skype, Powerpoint and anti-virus applications directly from your flash drive. They don't actually take up much space — the average application uses under 10MB of memory, so a 512Mb stick can easily carry several applications along with your files." Everything from your favourite internet browser, to password managers (enabling the dozens of online accounts we seem to accumulate everyday to be launched with one master password) can now be run via a U3 smart drive. Gold envisages a world in the not too distant future, where consumers will be able to install all of their applications onto their flash drives, enabling them to work on any computer they choose. Effectively this would lead to the hard drive of their PC being used simply as a back-up (files and applications could also be stored on an FTP site for extra security) — in other words, the opposite to what is currently the case. "Mobile phones will also become important platforms moving forward," adds Gold. "As their capacities increase there's no reason why applications couldn't be stored on the phone, and launched via Bluetooth or USB lead directly onto PCs." Whatever form USB flash drives end up taking, there is no doubt they have quickly established themselves as a user-friendly, convenient method of storing files on the move. Providing companies take note of their limitations and introduce measures to safeguard their data accordingly, there's no reason why these little sticks won't become as essential a piece of equipment as your laptop or Blackberry.
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