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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > November/December 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 10 — Nov/Dec 2003
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 it.

2. Wait for Windows to find the new hardware (normally, less than 10 seconds).

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. This 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 diskette 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 is happening.

• 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 to carry 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 to take 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 with you.)

• 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 media."

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 delicate—sensitive 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 data—and 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 ( 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.


Web Sites with More Information

Dell, Inc. (search for: USB Memory Key)

Flash Drives are coming down in cost (multiple vendors)

Gateway, Inc.

Iomega Mini USB Drives (64­256 MB)

USB Implementers Forum, Inc.

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
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