The Future of Secure Mobile Computing?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Emmett Jorgensen

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Article by Emmett Jorgensen

Ten years ago, the miniature USB thumb drive crashed onto the scene, revolutionizing the portable storage industry. 

Although expensive at the time of its initial release, it quickly came down in price and went up in storage capacity, providing massive amounts of storage in a tiny form factor.

Today, the revered little flash drive is making waves again, but this time as the newest advancement in secure, portable computing. 

A few innovative companies have developed a way to transform the flash drive from a simple storage device into a portable virtual machine manager, allowing users to store a completely bootable operating system, applications and data on a high capacity flash drive.

Using a Bare-Metal-Boot Mode, these devices never have to touch the internal hard drive of the host machine. Add to that encryption and dual factor authentication and you’ve got an incredibly secure device. And with capacities up to 128GB, there is plenty of room for data storage as well.

The argument for using a device like this is quite compelling:

  • No need to lug around a notebook and accessories
  • No need to sync data when travelling back and forth between home and work
  • Security – No trace browsing and no footprint when working on a host machine (plus, it isn’t vulnerable to infection by malware or viruses on untrusted machines)
  • Remote Management – A central administrator can control updates and patches, not having to rely on the end user to remember updates and security fixes

Are these features enough to make a strong case for the use of a product like this?  For most organizations, the answer will be yes.  The biggest drawbacks at this point appear to be cost and host compatibility. 

Like the first generation of flash drives themselves, this first generation of flash drives with built-in virtual machine managers are a bit expensive (however, when compared with the cost of a tablet or notebook, they don’t seem unreasonable). Like most technology, costs will come down over time. 

Also, not all host machines will have the technical specs needed to run the virtual OS manager from a flash drive, however, most newer machines should have no issues.

That said there are some excellent applications for a product like this:

Mobile Workforce – Sales and marketing professionals can have their desktop available anywhere with no need to sync.  Plus, it’s encrypted in case it’s ever lost or stolen.

Cost Reduction – Organizations looking for cost savings can provide these to employees so they can use their own machines instead of needing a company owned laptop. 

Security – Since everything is stored on an encrypted flash drive, IT Departments can ensure it’s secure, patched, and locked down to organizational specifications.

System Rescue – Boot to the USB flash drive and then mount the host HDD in a safe environment in order to disinfect it or use forensic tools or just access data.

Secure Remote Access – Connect to corporate servers and applications from anywhere without leaving a trace behind.  Conduct online financial transactions inside a secure sandbox that can’t be breached by cyber criminals.

With IT departments facing budget squeezes and security playing a prominent role in many IT discussions, there appear to be some very good applications for such a product. 

Now, only time will tell if it takes off to become the future of secure, mobile computing.

Cross-posted from Kanguru Blog – Technology on the Move!

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