Diskless PCs based on Flash memory and similar technologies.
SanDisk is pushing a 32-gig flash disk that costs multiple hundreds of dollars more than a large hard drive. (Here’s The Register’s take on it.) One figure they cite is a 100-fold+ improvement in access speed. The speed difference between disk and silicon, of course, is something I’ve focused on in my research into memory-centric data management, and also in some of the work on data warehouse appliances as well. They are proposing this as the entire fixed memory for laptops. And in a much cheaper vein, Nicholas Negroponte is proposing a diskless architecture for the 100-dollar laptop.
But to me, the really interesting future here is PCs with removable persistent solid-state storage. I wrote about the subject a year ago, and I just want to take this opportunity to remind people that’s it’s a desirable and not-implausible way for personal computing and consumer electronics to evolve. If the storage part of the system can be separated out, what you’re left with is mainly the human-facing I/O and the processing power to drive that. So from where I sit, portable external storage could drive an explosion in interesting and useful electronic device form factors.
I’ve been beating the drum for flash-drive-based diskless PCs for a while (see earlier posts in this section). Computerworld now reports that In-Stat says these PCs could take over half the laptop market by 2013.
Of course, that kind of market research study is not to be taken seriously, at least in its detailed dates and numbers. But of interest is the #1 benefit to flash drives cited in a survey they did, because it’s one I hadn’t focused on before — lower power consumption.
What I’ve been talking about is a grand change in personal computing, with removable flash drives replacing hard drives, and being carried from device to device. Laptops with fixed flash drives may be a key step on the path toward that future.
I’ve argued that Flash-based “diskless” PCs would offer major improvements in security. On the other hand, evidence from US military installations in the Middle East suggests than Flash drives are actually a major security hole.
Can these views be reconciled? I think so. The answer, simply, is that Flash drives need embedded RFID chips (or some substitute technology) so that their movements can be detected and controlled.
“But wait!”, you cry. “Doesn’t that mean anybody who legitimately carries a secure Flash drive around can have her movements nefariously tracked?” Well yes, it does, but that genie is out of the bottle anyway. We just have to deal with it on another level.
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But the diskless PC is a strong answer. Then all you have to keep secure is a small data module. Not only is that much easier because of the physical form factor, but it also is vastly easier to encrypt.
Yes, I’m repeating myself.
Jimmy Daniels of RealTechNews writes about Robson Flash Cache technology, as an add-on to conventional PCs. But at the bottom he gets to what I think the core point, which is that it would be better to use flash to replace hard drives altogether.
Apparently Microsoft is pushing some kind of flash caching. Good for them, especially since — as I’ve previously noted — the move to diskless PCs will not necessarily be to their advantage. Maybe we’ll get to the promised land via some kind of intermediate path.
My columnist colleagues Frank Hayes and Mark Hall are having a friendly dust-up about fat clients vs. thin clients. If forced to choose, I’ll side with Frank’s view:
Whether or not IT wants to take fat clients away from users, it can’t.
And that’s one of the big reasons I like the idea of solid-state-memory-based PCs. In essence, they segment a PC’s disk, with strong air gaps to protect one part against the others. And if you do that, SOME of IT’s problems go away.
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.