USB Pen Drives: Large, Portable Storage in a Tiny Package

Carla Schroder looks at why these little devices are taking the networking admin world by storm, and also offers tips for making them work on Linux with hotplugging support.

 By Carla Schroder
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The conscientious, hard-working network admin can often be sighted striding purposefully about, laden with large binders and bags of disks. Documentation is everything in this business — device configurations, system configurations, network settings and diagrams, hardware and software inventories, deli delivery menus and numbers — it all has to be recorded.

Some of us even keep logbooks to document procedures — especially the successful ones. This is no joke on Linux systems, which typically run trouble-free for months and months, making it all too easy to forget just what it was we initially did that worked so well.

I'm a big believer in paper documentation. I can scribble notes on it and read it easily with my elderly eyeballs, it can't break if accidentally dropped, and best of all, I don't need a machine to read it, so I can take it anywhere. Hey, it's no joke crawling underneath desks with a little Maglite and a paper notebook — the thought of having to lug a computer around in those circumstances would be nuts.

But digital storage also has its place, for all the obvious reasons I shan't bore you with by enumerating. In the past I would typically carry a jumble of floppy disks and CDs containing documentation, software, configuration files, rescue disks, and miscellaneous "you never know when this will be useful" stuff. Lately, though, I've been able to weed down most of it, keeping only a few bootable rescue disks and my new super-important nifty gadget – a USB pen drive (also called "thumb" drives).

The Well-Equipped Geek

We’re in a rather interesting transitional time where we have to deal with all manner of methods for doing data transfer with portable media: 3.5" diskettes, CD-R/RWs, and now USB drives. Diskettes have the obvious disadvantages of being a vulnerable magnetic medium and also being limited to capacities far too small for today's world. Still, they are the lowest common denominator on older systems.

CDs, on the other hand, are great, with plenty of capacity, but they are cumbersome and often too time-consuming for recording data. This leads us to USB storage drives, which fill a new niche by offering fast and easy data transfer in a small, sturdy, portable device.

That's not to say USB storage devices aren't without their own disadvantages. First, older machines don't have USB ports, and second, USB devices aren’t always bootable. Booting from USB depends on your system BIOS, so if it already recognizes USB boot devices, you're in business.

But from a network administration standpoint, I don't much care if I can boot from USB — I have my faithful Tom's Root Boot on diskette, Peter Anvin's SuperRescue CD, and a Knoppix CD to handle any system recovery chores.

As a network admin, I want my sleek little USB device to carry system data, software, and documentation. Plus I want to be able to quickly and easily dump new data into it, such as logfiles and other diagnostic outputs.

16- to 256-megabyte drive sizes are common, and are relatively inexpensive, with street prices ranging from around $30 to $125.00. You'll see USB 2.0 devices now as well; they're the high-speed, next-generation USB technology that promises data transfer speeds of 480 megabits per second. USB 1.1 tops out at 12 megabits per second. Yep, quite a difference!

It's most likely that your systems will support USB 1.1, as 2.0 is still quite fresh and new. USB 2.0, however, is backwards-compatible to 1.1, so aside from the cost difference, it doesn't matter which version you purchase.

Page 2: Making It Work on Linux

This article was originally published on Dec 22, 2003
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