Thumbdrives and your business

IT Pro Guide: Why lug around a laptop, or even a power hungry PDA, when there are computers with USB ports everywhere you go? There's a small revolution happening in SMEs across the country, and Davey Winder gives it a cautious thumbs up

The USB 'thumbdrive' revolution has been an undoubted consumer success, but the business market has proved tougher to crack.

At the smaller end of the SME space, however, and increasingly towards the top end too, thumbdrives are beginning to be taken very seriously as they help drive down costs while driving up mobility and productivity. The business need for a laptop or a PDA is often overplayed, when all that is really necessary is data portability, not the ability to work on that data in transit.

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Lifecycle management

Increasing storage capacity coupled with falling prices means a thumbdrive can serve as fully a self-contained environment capable of running proper office applications. But two words prevent you from simply installing those apps directly onto the drive: lifecycles and licenses.

Just because the device is small, it doesn't mean your licensing audit requirements decrease accordingly. In addition, flash memory devices have limited lifespans - after 'several million' write/erase cycles they can fail. Specifically ported portable apps reduce excessive writing to non-volatile storage by placing temporary files in memory to extend the life of the device.

So, although there will almost certainly be a shift towards commercially licensed portable applications, the majority of the truly useful office software available right now is either Open Source or freeware.

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U3 devices

Currently the business choice should be focussed on U3 (www.u3.com www.u3.com) compliant devices, an alliance of manufacturers headed by SanDisk to ensure licensing and digital rights management compliance.

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U3 creates run-time environments for any launched application executed within a sandbox to protect both thumbdrive and host. All temporary files created are removed when the application is closed and the host is returned to the same state as before the thumbdrive was inserted.

Acting as a client virtualisation device, abstracting the application GUI from the host PC resources, a U3 thumbdrive uses the host as a blade-like chassis into which its sandboxed applications can be plugged. And the quality and quantity of business oriented applications are increasing all the time, with portable versions of OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird and Sunbird all available for download from U3 for example.

The DIY approach

If you don't have a U3 enabled device, then you might consider the Portable Apps Suite (www.johnhaller.com), which bundles a preconfigured set of portable apps including that same U3 core into a package that will fit onto a 256MB drive.

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Although much of the full application functionality is reproduced in portable versions, 'much' is not the same as 'all' so expect to encounter some problems. You won't be able to access Java from Firefox (unless Java is installed on the host PC), for instance, and OpenOffice database design functionality is crippled by the lack of Java whether or not the host PC has it installed.

Make sure you choose a drive which has a write-protect switch to prevent accidental deletion of data. You will also need to add software encryption, but make sure you choose an option that doesn't require pre-installation on the host PC if you want to be able to access data away from the enterprise itself. TrueCrypt (www.truecrypt.org) provides software encryption without installation. Both the executable files and the encrypted file image are stored on the thumbdrive itself, making the encrypted partition accessible on any Windows-based host PC.

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Security matters

With dedicated anti-virus scanning available for the U3 platform, 128-bit encryption, and applications to control U3 drive access to the enterprise, the previously unanswered security issues of thumbdrives for business are slowly being addressed.

mTrust Shield (www.m-systems.com), for example, provides central management for setting and enforcing group policies for removable device usage. The enterprise can thus ensure data is only stored on approved devices, and access to all unauthorised devices blocked. Dynamic synchronisation with Active Directory and logging/auditing of all I/O activity in real time should keep IT managers happy.

Cost

The cost of thumbdrives is being driven down, while storage capacity continues to increase. A 2GB U3 enabled SanDisk Cruzer Titanium (built to withstand 2000lbs of crush force) is at the top end of the market at around 60 per unit, with the 1Gb non-Titanium version costing around 30. It's worth bearing in mind that bigger is better, especially when applications such as Portable OpenOffice.org for U3 consume 222MB for the application alone, without the associated data of MS Office-compatible word processor documents, presentations, spreadsheets and databases.

Summary

So can you run your business from a thumbdrive? No, not yet, but you can move data portability away from expensive and relatively heavy laptops and PDAs without compromising business data integrity.

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