Flash Drive Linux vs. Standard Linux Desktops

Monday Jul 18th 2011 by Matt Hartley

Carrying your Linux OS on a flash drive has distinct advantages over the traditional desktop-based configuration.

Flash drives have had a long-lasting relationship with Linux distributions. These portable storage devices are among the most reliable for out of the box hardware support on the Linux desktop. Clearly, using flash drives to run Linux has its benefits for various types of users.

As luck would have it, I was told of a company that is apparently running individual installations of Linux on flash drives for each of their employees. Apparently cost was a major motivation, but so was the need to VPN into the office from home without needing to configure a separate piece of software for each person.

It seems there's something inherently valuable about being able to take your "computing profile" with you, even when you're away from work.

Taking your user profile with you

One of the greatest advantages of using a flash drive to run a Linux distribution is that it's like having a computer that fits into your pocket without relying on your smart phone as an alternative. This means that you have everything you need right there on the flash drive itself.

Completely independent of any one single workstation or using a thin client box at work, the end-user is free to hop from computer to computer as they see fit. Any needed network settings, secure access to company servers, etc, is made possible due to the network settings stored on the flash drive. So there's no need to worry about consistent settings being mismanaged as one person logs off and another logs on. Differing user permissions travel with each user.

Another advantage that potentially goes beyond what thin client hardware will offer is how easy it is to take your "computer" home with you. Just plugin the pre-configured flash drive into your computer at home, satisfy the necessary login to the company VPN and get to work.

Best of all, critical data that isn't allowed to be accessed from outside of the workplace can be restricted via network policies. So there's less of a security hassle by using a flash drive over a company laptop.

For less security-conscious situations, one could VPN into their workplace and then send whatever they're working on directly to their email account. This would allow the end-user to work on the document in question, locally. Which means if the network suddenly died, no harm is done.

Best of all, you get to choose which computer you use, rather than working from a clunky company-assigned unit.

Hardware advantages

Because everything that is needed for company work is handled by the flash drive, this allows the end-user to have the freedom to run the computer of their choosing. An even better option would be a company payed "hardware allowance" to apply toward a notebook purchase. This would go a long way towards ensuring that the laptop being used is one that is best suited for the user in question.

A company compatible flash drive policy allows the typical employee freedom from being shackled to specific company hardware. It's a really helpful approach to handling the annoyance that happens when things get lost, as well.

One other item to consider is the benefits of keeping things green. Instead of dropping money for new hardware, a company using flash drives would be able to use existing workstations even longer. This means company revenue stays with the company, instead of being shelled out for redundant workstations through the office.

Lost flash drives with security in place

While I can't speak for every workplace out there, I've found that, yes, it's generally frowned upon to lose a company-issued notebook. Even though you may have had a password protecting your data on the operating system, chances are pretty good your stored data is still at risk of theft. It doesn't take a genius to remove the hard drive and see what can be recovered from it.

On the flip side, the potential for data loss is brought way down by using a flash drive policy. Obviously, this provides some allowances for the user being bright enough not to leave the drive plugged into the computer when it's not in use. Unfortunately, despite these obvious benefits, this might not be a match for all businesses out there.

Argument against using a flash drive

There will be circumstances where a standard thin client is going to be more functional for a company's needs. Examples might include where company policy dictates that flash drives are banned for security reasons. Another possibility is that a flash drive is used to handle authentication only, so using one as a desktop OS wouldn't fit into a company's needs.

Maybe you're providing IT for a company dealing with point of sale stations, thus rendering the idea of having a flash drive for each employee problematic at best, impossible at worst.

There are a plenty of reasons why it wouldn't be right to carry out this kind of plan. Yet at the same time, there are also countless companies that might genuinely benefit from taking the "dongle vs PC" approach to employee access to company resources. Allow me to put some emphasis on "might" here, as every workplace situation is going to be different.

User portability and access

As stated above, every company has varied needs when it comes to balancing out resources and security. But some of you might be wondering what the real advantages might be in working off of flash drives over that of actual thin client boxes? After all, I can run over to Google Shopping and pick up a thin client box for a mere $40. Clearly the pricing difference between that and a flash drive is fairly slight, no?

I happen to think allowing greater user portability has merit in the long run. With company policy and overall function allowing, I think it's worthwhile sticking with an easy to configure flash drive friendly Linux distribution.

And why not? If sticking to a portable method of managing workplace PCs translates into less dependency to any one computer, all the better. With that said however, I should point out that these drives would still be acting as thin clients.

Yes, the term "thin client" still applies. Basically the thin client becomes a flash drive concept instead of a workstation-related one. Yet unlike a traditional thin client hardware device, the flash memory used with a USB flash drive is truly portable. So you needn’t be shackled to an office to get your work done.

Flash drive vs Web thin client

The last item I wanted to touch on is the advantages of a Web thin client. Like the USB flash drive, a Web thin client offers plenty of PC independent portability. Another advantage with it is that the fear of losing a device is a moot point entirely. Your company computer is merely an address and a login.

The only real disadvantage to using this approach is that you still must use a storage medium if you wish to take data with you off site. Something like a flash drive, for instance. Because if you should lose network connectivity for some reason, you'll be without a local disk to store your project on. Outside of this, I would otherwise suggest that the differences between a flash drive driven solution vs. a Web thin client are going to be fairly slight.

The future is with the Web

Despite the localized advantages of a flash drive Linux installation, I see the long-term future being with Web thin clients. Thanks in part to the popularity of Web-based operating systems and a push to adopt "cloud computing" as the accepted way of doing things, the idea of using flash drives might seem antiquated. Some among you might even point out that using flash drives running Linux for enterprise use is too little, too late. This might be true to some extent, except that I've found that having the ability to scan documents, print my work or just running an email client (in view only mode) has its advantages when the company network is down. A Web OS, requires a network connection. The last time I checked, using a vanilla Linux distribution on a flash drive, does not.

To further recap my reasoning for giving flash drives a strong second look in the workplace, consider the following: flash drives offer data portability. It would also translate into reuse of existing computer hardware. Using a flash drive leaves out any concern over a network outage. While a company network outage could be an issue for accessing the company server, once the data is pulled into LibreOffice or another FoSS application, network connectivity suddenly doesn't become as important. This is merely my take on this idea, your mileage may vary.

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