Decision Support: Flash drive on a key chain comes in handy when troubleshooting PCs

Uncover the file storage and retrieval capabilities of the DiskOnKey flash storage device

Check the pockets of any IT pro and you're bound to find a number of small, cool, electronic gadgets, most of which we carry to make our jobs easier. I recently found a device that you might want to add to your arsenal: the DiskonKey flash storage device. Half the length and twice the width of a Bic pen, this USB device offers unbelievable file storage and retrieval capabilities.

The device is geared toward the consumer market as a way to transfer or store small files and applications, such as MP3s or your latest digital snapshots. However, I've identified several ways you can use the DiskonKey for troubleshooting PC problems.

A disk drive in your shirt pocket
The DiskonKey flash storage device is a portable, USB-compliant storage device that you can fit in a shirt pocket (see Figure A). The device comes from M-Systems, a pioneer in flash disk technology and maker of the venerable DiskonChip flash disks.

Figure A
Each disk comes in a variety of colors with storage sizes up to 128 MB. Larger sizes (256 MB and 512 MB) are expected in 2002.

The DiskonKey is based on M-Systems' patented True Flash File System (TrueFFS) technology. TrueFFS is the leading implementation of the Flash Translation Layer (FTL) industry standard for flash file management. This standard enables data transfer between PCs and portable consumer products, such as digital cameras and PDAs.

FTL also allows DiskonKey to fully emulate a hard drive, delivering high performance, low-power-consumption data storage for portable applications. Since it is implemented in software, FTL eliminates the need for Advanced Technical Architecture (ATA) hardware overhead, presenting a more cost-effective solution for flash data storage.

It is also compatible with nearly any OS. Its onboard CPU allows it to run with the latest operating systems so there is no need to download drivers. It can seamlessly switch between Windows, Linux, or Mac systems without missing a beat. All that's required is the ubiquitous USB port available on nearly every PC or laptop. One caveat, while the DiskonKey device requires no special configuration for late model Windows OSs (Me, 2000, and XP), it requires a certain driver to work on Windows 98 machines. You can download the driver, however, from the DiskonKey Web site.

Unlike most corded devices I have hanging off my PCs, this one requires no power supply or batteries to run. Simply insert DiskonKey into the USB port, and it draws its power from the computer. When plugged in, you see a slowly beating LED indicating the device has power, but it is inactive, as the LED goes off after awhile to save on power consumption. Also, a fast flashing LED tells you data is being transferred and it's not yet safe to disconnect the device.

Practical troubleshooting uses
I've discovered that beyond storing and transferring MP3s and digital images, this device can be quite a help when troubleshooting various PC problems. Suppose your network has workstations running a multitude of different OSs because your users have special application needs and the applications aren't compatible with the upgrade. With the DiskonKey device, you no longer need to carry an array of boot disks around with you to fix a system.

Because DiskonKey has automatic boot capabilities and is recognized by BIOS systems, you can carry all the drivers and system tools you need in your pocket on one device. Of course, you could easily argue Zip disks are an alternative to this solution, but not every workstation has the luxury of a Zip drive. USB ports, on the other hand, are often more prevalent.

You can also use it as a supplementary hard drive (see Figure B). While the 8-MB DiskonKey version might not get you very far, the larger storage sizes can save valuable down time in the event a user's hard drive fails. The DiskonKey looks just like any other hard drive on your system, so finding a program or file is a cinch.

Figure B
The host computer will immediately detect DiskonKey and recognize it as a supplementary hard drive.

Another scenario would be in the case a system fails and you need to take certain files from the system back to the test lab. Simply load a command line prompt and drill down until you see the DiskonKey drive. From there, you can copy the necessary files from the hard drive for further analysis.

I'm sure you can come up with a multitude of situations where DiskonKey would come in handy. Its flexibility and small size make it an excellent alternative to using floppy or Zip disks for troubleshooting purposes. And of course, it's great for storing and transferring music and image files.

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