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Thoughts on Flash Drives

February 26th, 2009 by Erick Beck

For whatever reason, my life has seemed to revolve around flash drives for the last week. Even at home I can’t get away — I ordered a new one from and got a note from the Post Office saying they tried to deliver it, couldn’t fit it inside the (rural size) mail box, and that I would have to go to the post office to pick it up. I’ll be interested to see how much wrapping it takes to ship a flash drive. [Aside: The next day – the box measured 16″ x 6″ x 4″ and the flash drive was the only thing shipped.]

This all started as we were trying to tighten up the IT architecture of the department. There are university rules about password storage, treatment of confidential information, etc., but it almost never trickles down to the departmental level. We are in the midst of a larger reorganization so I wanted to use that as the catalyst to restructure how we do business. The first challenge was getting rid of that password file on the shared drive… the one with dozens of business accounts each using a password no stronger than ‘hello123.’

The obvious solution to this one was to implement use of a password vault. We would then have the business office create strong passwords within the vault and then log into all of their accounts and reset the password. Though there were many to choose from we decided upon keepass, both because it is open source and because it works cross platform. Yes, the people in the business office would have been happy with anything that worked on Windows, but we have developers and designers using linux and Mac so wanted to use something that would work cross platform.

Cross platform, of course, turned out to be a relative term. What worked perfectly on our Windows install has been a royal pain on Linux, and I haven’t even tried to put it on the Mac yet. But our original goal was accomplished — the business office now has it running on their desktops with the encrypted password database in a portable thumb drive so it can be given to the student workers when needed. Everyone has been educated about the importance of strong passwords, and we’re all good.

We were all good, anyway, until one of our developers mentioned in casual conversation that while working from home on a project he had potentially confidential information on his laptop and thumb drive. Enter the need for disc encryption. With an encrypted laptop hard drive or USB drive you will at least know that your data is safe if you ever lose it. For this we decided to go with TrueCrypt. TrueCrypt allows us to either run the software on individual computers and mount the encrypted volume (USB stick) or have the entire program self-contained on the USB drive so that it can be carried and run on any computer. It isn’t perfect in that the self-contained option requires administrative priviledges on the computer you want to run it on, but it seems a fair trade so far.

If you’re going to buy a USB drive these days you might as well get a large one — 16 or even 32G devices are dirt cheap and offer more storage space than you’ll likely ever need. With all that space you might as well take advantage of it and make the thumb drive a useful tool rather than just a portable storage device. I found Portable Apps an invaluable resource. They offer customized versions of your favorite software tools that can be hosted on and run from your thumb drive. Keep Thunderbird, with all of your customizations and address book, with you wherever you go; or Pidgin with your buddy list; or dozens of other utilities large and small.

A bit of a postscript and to return to the theme of thumb drives dominating my life…  After writing this post I unpacked the new device mentioned earlier and tried to copy a SUSE 11.1 DVD ISO onto it for ease and portability.  Only after getting a warning popup message did I remember that FAT32 only supports up to 4G file sizes (and, of course, the ISO was 4.1G.)  A quick Google search found several sites recommending against reformatting to NTFS because of how a journaling filesystem will eat away at the flash memory… so be aware that even the large drives with lots of storage will have their limits as to the size of the file they can effectively store.

Thursday, February 26th, 2009 Uncategorized
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1 Comment to Thoughts on Flash Drives

  1. Good reminder. There are also options like IronKey that have native encryption and are waterproof for that occasional trip through a washing machine.

  2. Matthew Crawley on March 2nd, 2009

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