I’m not a hardware guy, so please pardon me if some specifics here are implausible, but an interesting idea has arisen, and indeed turned into the subject of my December Computerworld column. Shayne Nelson raised the subject of diskless PCs based on USB/flash “drives,” and a web search uncovered a Slashdot discussion on the subject a couple of months earlier, which in turn seems to have been based on a now unavailable Yahoo story. The technology certainly would seem to be practical in the near future, and it raises some interesting ramifications and possibilities.
1. The most vulnerable, volatile, and valuable parts of the computer — the programs and data — could now be removable and put in any pocket, or mailed without much fear of breakage. Even better, they could be segmented, on multiple drives per computer. Possible security and administration benefits include:
a. The drive that stores most programs could be locked down, tight. Pick your dream technology or policy for making PC images consistent across your network; it just became a lot more plausible to implement.
b. The drive that stores most data could be entirely encrypted. Flash drive access is several orders of magnitude faster than disk access, making this a reasonable precaution even though it’s not very practical with magnetic storage.
c. What’s more, laptops might still be lost or stolen — but they wouldn’t have to have data on them! An employee whose laptop is stolen is unlucky. An employee who leaves sensitive data in an unattended laptop could now be justifiably fired.
d. In two-factor authentication, the flash drive might be the second factor. No fuss, no bother.
e. You could physically upgrade every user’s disk without shipping PCs around. Just ship flash drives around instead.
f. Enterprises could implement a policy of NO PERSONAL WEB SURFING UNLESS YOU SWAP OUT COMPANY DRIVES (and therefore presumably swap in your personal ones). All kinds of security problems would be ameliorated ASAP, at much less cost to employee goodwill than more draconian crackdowns incur.
2. Environment-specific computer equipment would now be much more affordable. Classrooms, meeting rooms, operating rooms, etc. might have more suitable devices than they now do.
3. Before long, we might not need to travel with laptop computers! Yes, devices in hotel rooms might be problematic from a security standpoint, but there are workarounds for that too. And in any environment that’s more locked down, such as a home or corporate office, the problem is almost nonexistent unless you work for a Three Letter Agency.
4. Disk space would initially be decreased, just as the Web initially made UIs worse. That’s not a huge problem, but it might not bode well for bloatware vendors (e.g., Microsoft).
Obviously, this isn’t a big deal from a business standpoint until the devices are actually manufactured and sold. But it’s fun to think about. And it actually makes a whole lot of sense.