Universal Serial Bus flash drives are infiltrating the workplace—for good reason. They're easy to use and not too hard on the budget.
Employees can carry copies of e-mail and other documents on them, cutting down on the need for remote access to the office network. Salespeople can load presentations and brochures on them and then hand out the devices to prospects. While these little devices are a cost-effective way to carry data around, information technology managers will need to guard against security breaches.
The devices, often called thumb drives because they consist of a thumb-sized strip of encapsulated flash memory, come in capacities ranging from 128 megabytes to 8 gigabytes. While the return on investment on the drives can be hard to quantify, the productivity value compared to their price is undeniable. The drives typically range in price from 15 to 23 cents a megabyte and that's dropping, so it takes only a few uses to more than justify the investment by saving employee time, helping make a sale, making out-of-office time more productive or avoiding the need to haul around a notebook computer.
Booming sales of USB flash drives reflect this: The research firm Gartner of Stamford, Conn., estimates that nearly 52 million drives were bought worldwide last year. That added up to more than $1.5 billion in total sales, senior Gartner analyst Joseph Unsworth says. By 2007, Gartner estimates shipments will grow to 133 million units worth $2.8 billion in sales.
"It's an inexpensive, effective data transfer and storage method," says Peg Primak, principal of Primak Partners, a Waltham, Mass., firm providing probate accounting, estate administration and personal financial services. Primak gives clients copies of her company's financial data on flash drives.
Broadleaf Services, a Lexington, Mass., company that offers data storage, continuity and disaster recovery services, also finds the drives handy. "At a customer site, we often need to pull some critical configuration files from a server but don't want to spend the time creating a special network user," says Beth Cohen, director of operations. "All the tech support staff carry USB keys for just such occasions. They have saved me—more than a few times."
But the little drives do present security risks, says Crawford Del Prete, senior vice president of research for International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass. "Companies spend a lot of time securing their networks and laptops, but they forget that a USB drive is an easy way to steal information or for somebody to lose a drive full of data."
The drives bypass whatever security is normally applied to files coming in via e-mail, says Chris Owens, a principal at Interisle Consulting Group of Boston. "You need to be ultra-careful about virus-checking and about what else may be inadvertently carried along with the intended documents," he notes.
Plus, adds IDC's Del Prete, because the drives are reusable, users might lose track of the information stored on them or forget to dump somewhat sensitive data before passing it along to another user.
When IT teams establish sound use and security policies, there are many smart and inexpensive uses for USB drives.
Cost-effective uses for USB flash drives: