Going above and beyond

Selected by five Network World contributors, these category-breaking products raise the bar with their novel approaches to solving today's enterprise challenges.

The category breaker: U3's U3 Smart Drive technology

Selected by James Kobielus, senior technical systems analyst at trading exchange Exostar, "Above the Cloud" columnist

What makes this product so special? U3 Smart Drive technology is the latest step in client virtualization. A client becomes virtualized when its GUI grows abstracted from the resources of the local-access device, be it a PC, handheld or other computer. With client virtualization, users are blissfully unaware of what blend of local and remote resources - CPU, storage, network connectivity - is driving their presentation experiences.

What's truly innovative about U3 smart drives is the extent to which they bring blade-style virtualization to the client PC. U3 smart drives consume a partitioned slice of the host's CPU, storage, connectivity and other hardware resources, and integrate into the Windows file system. But they do so only as temporary plug-in modules and without access to other services offered by the host operating system and applications. U3 technology could one day transform a PC into a blade chassis (or souped-up docking chassis) within which applications, files and other resources from diverse client environments can coexist, each within its own smart-drive sandbox. As the number of USB ports on today's PCs grows, the concept of a USB client blade chassis becomes more feasible.

In this sense, U3 smart drives might be regarded as the inverse of another promising client virtualization approach: server-side blade PCs. Blades from pioneers HP, ClearCube and IBM virtualize desktop resources into manageable slices of a server's centralized resources, transforming the innards of each PC into a blade that can be installed in a server chassis and accessed remotely via a thin client windowing protocol such as Citrix's Independent Computing Architecture. U3 smart drives put the guts of the virtual client into a flash "thumb drive" that users carry around on them.

U3 smart drives embed a virtualization layer that runs transparently on any Windows XP or 2000 system into which the drives are inserted (without requiring a preinstalled or persistent U3 system software footprint on the host machine). This virtualization layer, which resides on the U3 smart drive, consists of:

• U3 Launchpad: Provides a GUI interface and personal workspace that lets users access the applications, data and personalization settings of a U3 smart drive.

• U3 Kernel API: Lets U3 smart applications access the U3 kernel's services and those of the underlying flash drive.

• U3 Kernel: Provides the low-level software infrastructure that serves as a bridge between the U3 smart drive and the applications and data stored on that drive.

• U3 Device API: Provides the interface between the U3 Kernel and device services provided by the U3 smart drive.

• U3 Device Services: Provide U3 smart applications with access to protected areas on the flash drive, as well as to device configuration, capability and status information.

U3 provides a software-development kit that programmers can use to create or port applications to run in the U3 computing environment. U3 smart applications are built to be self-contained and not make persistent changes to the host computer's hard drive, registry or other system resources. When a U3 smart application is launched from the flash drive, a U3 smart package is loaded into temporary files on the host Windows computer to launch and run the application. The U3-compliant application is independent of the host computer's directory structure, storage resources and registry.

The U3 computing environment creates a run-time environment for each launched application and executes those applications in a security sandbox that protects them from the host computer and vice versa. When the application is closed, all application-related temporary files are removed from the host computer, and the host is restored to its state before the U3 smart drive was inserted.

Who's using it? U3 has positioned this technology for broad adoption by business and consumers. It has lined up a host of flash-drive manufacturers, including these in the United States: Kingston Technology, Memorex, M-Systems, SanDisk and Verbatim. Several of these vendors have shipped retail versions of the technology bundled with various applications. In addition, U3 has recruited a broad range of commercial and open source software developers to build versions of their applications and utilities for the technology. The U3 software-development kit has been downloaded more than 3,000 times since its September 2005 launch.

How much will it cost the enterprise, on average? Pricing is typically per drive and depends primarily on the drive's capacity. For example, a 256MB smart drive costs between $30 and $40 per unit, whereas a 1GB drive ranges around $70 and a 2GB drive is more than $150. Some hardware manufacturers may bundle U3 smart drives with one or more applications. All U3 smart drives provide online access to U3 Software Central, a Web site from which other applications (commercial and open source) may be downloaded.

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