Try Today's Hip Technology: Portable Flash Drives
by Daniel Fidel Ferrer
I want to tell you about a new
technology called a flash drive. Sometimes these are called USB hard drives
or more specifically pen drives, key chain drives, key chain memory, pocket
drives, thumb drives, USB mini-drives, USB Memory Keys, or simply removable
flash disk drives. They are best described as portable hard drives that fit
on a key chain or in your pocket, and you simply plug them into USB ports,
where they're automatically recognized as another external drive and are ready
to use in seconds. I'll explain how they can be quite handy in your libraries.
The Newfangled Flash
Today, these tiny (3-inch, 1-ounce) flash drives can hold from 8 megabytes
(MB) to 2 gigabytes (GB) of data. The data is held in memory, so there are
no moving mechanical parts to break, and they are faster than floppy diskettes
or Zip drives. Flash drives are made from solid-state chips that are nonvolatile,
which means the drive does not need electrical power to hold its content over
time (no batteries). Students and patrons are already using these "way cool" devices,
and once you discover them, you'll want them too.
How do they work? Flash drives use hot plug-and-play, so once plugged in
to a port, you can use the new drive just as you would use any other disk:
Create folders, copy, paste, and delete files just as you would on your hard
drive. Plus, you can plug a flash drive in when your computer is already turned
on, and once you are done simply remove the device from the USB port; there
is no need to reboot. Flash drives work with Windows 98/2000/ME/XP, Mac (OS
9.x or greater), and Linux Kernel version 2.4. (It is better to use a flash
drive for transferring files and backing up small files daily than to use it
for backing up large sections of your hard drive; CD-R or DVD-R is better media
for large backups.)
Testing Flash in Real Life
How did I get into using flash drives in the library at Central Michigan
University? We have more than 300 patron computers in the university library
with complete Internet access and a full suite of Microsoft Office applications,
including MS Word for doing research papers. We have had students lose their
assignments and exam papers because their floppies stopped working. (I can
tell you, students are not happy when 10 hours of their hard work is on an
80-cent diskette that dies.) Also, as students create bigger projects and use
more multimedia, their work will no longer fit on a single floppy. Our general
solution had been to have students burn CD-Rs. Then library staff started looking
for other solutions and found out how nifty flash drives were.
My systems department purchased four flash drives in November of 2002; each
held between 16 and 64 megabytes of data. We started testing to see if they
would work for us. We tested the drives to find out how they would react to
the cold by leaving them in a car overnight in our Michigan winter. No problem
with cold. (The official specifications say the actual operating temperature
is 32 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is better than a standard computer.)
In our circulation department, I took a flash drive and passed it through the
book demagnetizer and security gates and found that it still worked. And since
these inexpensive devices are supposedly shock-resistant to 1000G (1,000 times
Earth's gravity; equal to the impact of dropping the device onto concrete from
about 1.5 meters) and vibration-resistant to 15G, I bounced one off the floor
a couple of times, and nothing happened. Most flash drives are also moisture-proof,
though only a few vendors claim that their drives are actually waterproof.
There is generally a 5-year warranty for flash drives, but this type of memory
is normally rated for memory retention for 10-plus years. (Incidentally, flash
drives are altitude-rated to 80,000 feet. Who got to do that test?)
Using Flash in a Library
After we finished testing, the next step was to train staff to use the drives.
The "training" was really just three simple steps:
1. Find the USB port on the computer and plug the flash drive into
2. Wait for Windows to find the new hardware (normally, less than
3. Find the removable drive under My Computer, then open the drive
and start moving files.
Using them was so easy that everyone quickly adapted. Now we're using them
for all sorts of applications:
We currently have more than 70 different software applications
running in our libraries and most of the software updates and patches do
not come on CD but are downloaded from the Internet. So when we want to transfer
the updates to other computers, we use flash drives to move the files.
has become very typical for us.
We have student assistants scan graphical images to add to
our Web sites, and the images are much larger than a 1.44-megabyte floppy
can hold. So the assistant scans the graphics at one computer that has
a scanner, then uses a flash drive to transfer them to the computer where
the Web design
Also, our student assistants need passwords to access our 150
staff microcomputers when they are working on problems or installing new
software. At one time we printed a password list for the student assistants
with them; now we keep it on a flash drive that is password-protected.
We've found other uses for this new tool. One of our staff
members is making backup CDs of our book orders and acquisition information
home with her. The information is already backed up in a variety of ways
on the server, but the complexity of the backup makes us worry about retrieving
the information. So we are purchasing another flash drive for this application.
(There is a certain psychological security in taking critical data home
Another librarian keeps a book project on a flash drive, and
I have been putting this article on flash to carry it home with me.
"Flash drives have overcome many of the shortcomings of other storage
As more librarians and staff began to see how easy flash drives were to use,
we started buying more of them with bigger capacity. The 16- and 32-megabyte
models seem old-fashioned now because the last four we've purchased have all
been 256 megabytes.
Why the Flash Is Better
Flash drives have overcome many of the shortcomings of other storage media.
For instance, there are several key problems with Zip technologies: They can
be difficult to install and have moving parts that can break. And for college
students, both the disks and the drives are expensive.
Floppy diskettes are extremely delicatesensitive to heat, cold, and
water. They contain flimsy film and moving parts. Students easily damage floppies
by leaving them in their cars overnight in their backpacks. Furthermore, many
computers are no longer shipping with floppy drives but rather with a CD-RW
as standard. But flash drives could become ubiquitous, since newer computers
do come with USB ports, and you can purchase USB hubs with more ports. Flash
drives also eliminate the extra expense of adding Zip drives to all the computers
you use. Finally, the flash drives are faster than either floppy or Zip disks.
Because of all these advantages, I've been talking with our university book
store managers about having them sell flash drives to the students. [Just before
press time, the bookstore did start selling them.] Getting 19,000 students
to change from floppies to flashes overnight is unlikely, but the future is
moving in that direction. One of our mathematics professors has already required
his students to buy flash drives for class projects, and the mathematics department
has new Apple computers without floppy or Zip drives, so students are purchasing
flash drives to download their information.
Market Info and Prices
A little research confirms that flash technology is emerging in a big way.
Market forces will make flash more widespread than Zip, since more computers
have universal interfaces and USB ports. Since you can store music files on
flash drives, this may help push the market. And prices have dropped, especially
for the flash drives using the USB 1.1. When I wrote this article in August,
the price from Gateway for a 16-MB flash drive was $20, a 32-MB was $30, and
a 64-MB was $47. From a media superstore, I recently purchased a 256-MB USB
2.0 flash drive for $79 (with the added feature of a full aluminum casing).
The 256-MB storage is equivalent to 177 floppy diskettes' (3.5-inch, 1.44-MB)
worth of dataand all that information now fits in your pocket! In January
2003, the Iomega 256 started at over $160, and now it is listed at $54. Currently,
there are 64-MB flash drives (which store the equivalent of 44 floppy diskettes)
priced at $19.
I remember when I was working on an IBM XT with a 10-MB hard drive, which
was considered to be large back then. Now a 10-MB hard drive is at the low
end of the spectrum even for flash storage devices. More than 100 different
vendors make flash drives now, and according to Semico Research, production
was 10 million units in 2002 and will grow to 50 million units by 2006 (Electronics
News, Nov. 2002).
Here are some specific predictions on the future directions of flash drive
technology. PC World recently did performance testing on five flash
drives ("Put It in Your Pocket." August 2003, pp. 107108) and found one
with a small onboard CPU that was four-times faster than some of the other
flash drives of the same size (diskonkey.com). I expect password protection
and small onboard CPUs will become standard on flash drives for security and
speed. In the Apple world, where they use FireWire connections, I expect we
will see FireWire 800 flash drives, which will be exceptionally fast indeed.
And instead of getting smaller, I think that flash drives will be made tougher
and more water-resistant.
As PDAs, telephones, and other mobile devices continue to get smarter, flash
drives will be used to contain and transfer our information among all of these
electronic tools. We librarians and our patrons will start making extensive
use of flash drives for the computers in our libraries.
Daniel Fidel Ferrer is head of the library systems department at Central Michigan
University's Charles V. Park Library in Mount Pleasant, Mich. In 2002, as part
of a building upgrade project, he added over 500 computers to the library. Ferrer
holds an M.S.L. and M.S. in information science from Western Michigan University.
His e-mail address is Daniel.Ferrer@cmich.edu.