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Explainers - May 18, 2018

The Dangers of USB Flash Drives

Flash devices, flash drives, key drives, USB drives, etc.  These hand-held IT storage gadgets are ubiquitous throughout our lives.  Convenient and compact, we trust these contraptions because everyone uses them.  They’ve replaced (both large and small) floppy disks, zip drives and other once-popular, handy methods of data storage.  It’s commonplace to label USB flash devices as “drives,” but that’s just a buzz word.  Flash devices aren’t actually drives at all.  A hard drive, as the one inside your computer, has a shiny round platter and other and moving parts.

Clear and Present Danger

The disadvantage of these oh-so-convenient, portable drives?  They all wear out eventually, thus losing your precious data.  Decidedly uncool.  Potentially catastrophic.  Imagine you recently purchased a 16 gigabyte USB flash device, so you nonchalantly start using it as an external storage device for your important data for an extended period of time.  You think it has lots of room so you store and erase various documents, pictures, Power Points, spreadsheets, PDFs, and cool MP3s from your friends.  Download, delete.  Download, delete.  Download, delete.  Until one day … I t   s t o p s   w o r k i n g.

USB flash devices can only write and erase data a certain number of times before havoc occurs.  Each has a finite number of write and erase cycles.  Sometimes you may only lose portions of data while trying to save files or during a write operation.  Or you could lose the entire contents completely.  All the information contained within, you’re now without.   Irreparable and irretrievable.

Flash Drive in the Pan

How long can you use one of these portable devices?  No one knows.  Manufacturers usually estimate the number of write and erase cycles range from 10,000 to 100,000.  The most disquieting thing about that number is that it exists.  Yet few of us are aware of its implications.

Pull Quote: Your portable drive has a finite number of write and erase cycles.

Manufacturers created a “wear leveling” algorithm, attempting to make the devices last longer. This formula is their fail safe programme; but you never know what internal abracadabra is trying to extend your flash device’s lifespan.  Or, importantly, what is its current state of decay.  The fact an elaborate calculation attempts to extend its duration should be warning enough.  The moral?  Your temporary storage device is a ticking time bomb that will eventually go boom.  Who knows when.  Hmmm, perhaps there’s a reason it’s called a FLASH drive?

USB: Use Storage Better

These portable devices are best used, then, to transfer data from one location to another, rather than using them for permanent storage.  Like a form-fitting cardboard container used to carry your drinks from the concession stand to your seats inside a movie theatre or sports game, they’re merely temporary transport mechanisms.

Keep in mind that reading data from the device doesn’t impact its lifespan; there isn’t a limit to read operations.  It’s the overall file management that causes all the wear and tear.  Best to fill the device up to its full capacity, rather than erasing older files and writing new ones in their stead.  Constantly adding and erasing files decrease these devices’ already limited obsolescence.

If possible—unless the files you’re transferring are larger media-type files—avoid purchasing USB flash devices with large gigabytes of space, as you’ll tend to use them more frequently as quasi-permanent storage tools.  And never walk around with 16 to 32 (temporary) gigabytes of important client or personal data attached to your key chain or stuffed in your pocket.

It’s prudent to back up the files you do copy to the USB device to a more permanent drive, especially if they’re really important.  Consider, too, making hard copies (that is a print copy, whenever appropriate), and store it in a safe, memorable place.  You can also store your data on to a DVD or CD, but keep in mind these wear out over time as well.  Some sagacious users employ a third-party data storage firm; much like keeping your valuables in a safe deposit box.

Another solution is an encrypted 2.5mm laptop hard drive in an external USB case.  Nowadays, hard drives are fairly portable.  They have drawbacks, but there’s no limit on write or erase operations.

A good old-fashioned hard drive is often your best bet, but it has moving parts that will eventually wear out.  The Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) of most hard drives is five years, when running 24/7.  Like your significant others or pets, hard drives don’t like to be dropped, kicked or drop kicked.  Treat them with care.

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