If you ask me to choose one device to store my files, I will choose the USB drive but not the big one external drive. It’s a tiny portable data storage device that plugs into the computer’s USB (Universal Serial Bus) port. Just a few of the brand names explain what it is. Here are some examples: TravelDrive™ from Memorex, Mini Cruzer™ from Sandisk, JumpDrive™ from Lexar. These small, pocket-sized storage devices are easy to work with, can plug in to any type of computer that is less than 8 years old or that has a USB port.
The great thing is that USB flash drives are really affordable now and for less than $100 you can get a 1GB USB storage device. Although flash drives have many uses, a common one is for transferring files from your work computer to your home computer, eliminating the need for lugging a laptop back and forth. (Although these devices go by many names, for purposes of this article, we will use the term flash drive.)
This article will take a look at this micro-technology, its history and future; you’ll be surprised to find out how prevalent this technology is and how long it has been around. As always, we will take a look at recovery options for these devices.
Are Flash Drives a New Technology?
In order to better understand the flash devices we have now, let’s take a moment and look at their history. Rudimentary flash memory began as integrated circuit chips that would come to be a standard in all electronic devices. These were known as CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor, pronounced ‘see-moss’) circuits. These small, low power, high-density circuits could be designed to perform a variety of functions and operations. Initially designed in 1963 and first produced in 1968, these little chips were the beginning of the digital integrated circuit. Perhaps you had a computer 17 years ago and remember the importance of the CMOS chip; the CMOS chip controlled the basic system settings and is similar to the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) on today’s computers.
CMOS integrated chips were a fantastic innovation; however, they were vulnerable to electro-static discharge, had to be handled carefully, and these chips always needed a constant power source to maintain the data. Did you ever have to replace the CMOS battery on your 8088 or 8086 computer? Then you remember that once the power was gone, you had to re-enter all of your computer’s settings.
A new style of chip called EEPROM (Electrically Erasable Programmable ROM or Read Only Memory) was the successor to the CMOS chip and had significant improvements. The major innovation was that the chips were designed to be written to and then to hold data without power. The on-board memory usually held 64k (65,536 bytes). However, the materials inside the chip would wear out over time due to the number of write operations, so the lifetime of these chips were 10,000 to 100,000 write cycles.
Flash memory was an improvement over the EEPROM circuits in that they provided faster access to the data. Originally designed by Intel in 1988 and followed up by Samsung and Toshiba in 1989, these chips started popping up everywhere as embedded memory on electronic devices. Most of the applications for this non-volatile memory storage were for devices where the chip was part of the internal electronics, for example mobile phones, VCRs, automotive electronics, and handheld devices. In fact, flash memory storage (NAND-type flash memory as it is known) could be used for any electronic application that required the storage of data without electrical current; even hard drives use flash memory chips!
What Are the Risks of Using Portable Storage?
For the majority of USB flash drive users, their drives will never go through that type of punishment. It seems that the biggest risk in using these devices is simply losing them! They are so small and compact that it would be easy to misplace a USB flash drive. Most of them come with neck strap or keychain clip that allow them to be with you constantly.
Most industry sites define flash drives as a compact storage and transporting device whereas most dictionaries define flash memory as a computer chip with a read-only memory that can be electronically erased and reprogrammed without being removed from the circuit board. By definition, using a flash drive as an active storage area could pose a risk. For instance, one user used a flash drive like a second document folder. The user was creating and editing documents on the device with their word processor re-saving active documents every five minutes. This constant writing wore out the flash memory. Just like EEPROM chips, flash devices have a lifespan (this depends on the number of write cycles, check with the manufacturer find out the expectancy rates of your particular model), however, there is no limit to the number of times data can be read.
Security is the final risk. A common use for a flash drive is to transfer files from work to home. If the flash drive was lost or stolen during the transport, proprietary company information would be compromised. In fact, most small to large companies have strict policies of what types of information can leave the premises. This highlights the importance of data encryption.
There are a number of software encryption products that will maintain data security even if the flash device falls into the wrong hands. In fact, most USB flash drives come with some sort of free encryption software; however the free software may not meet your data protection requirements. If you use your flash drive for your company’s information or for your own personal information, be sure to purchase quality encryption software. The manufacturer of the flash device should have a recommendation of software on their Web site.
What about Data Recovery? What if the USB Drive is Damaged?
Data Recovery is always an option for these types of devices. The quality of the recovery depends on how much usable data there is.
What about deleted or reformatted USB flash drives? Similar to hard disks, when a USB flash drive is reformatted or data is deleted, the file system addresses to the data are erased—not the data itself. Even if some files are re-saved back to the device, there may be a chance that the information is recoverable. In simple deleted recovery situations, do-it-yourself solutions such as the data recovery software would be able to find the data and bring it back. In more complex situations where data has been restored back to the device, a trained data recovery engineer would be able to tell the difference between the newly written data and the original data. After an evaluation, the user would know exactly which files sustained damaged and which ones did not.
As long as the flash media is not physically damaged, a quick recovery choice for USB flash drives the data recovery software. But one thing you should be pay attention is that choose the suitable software which will not do harm to your drive and the data.
Expert Tips for You
1. Remember, after data loss happened on your USB drive (or your computer, external drive, cellphone, iPod, iPad, etc.), stop using it at once. If you still using it, the data loss situation will be caused and you will lose the chance to get the lost data back.
2. Take this note: Build a backup for your files is necessary because this is a good method to protect your files away from the data loss problem.