Vendors take giant leap with drive encryption

Rival companies deliver strong, secure drives that don't skimp on performance

Now that the capacities of small form-factor drives have hit hundreds of gigabytes, just about any corporate database can easily fit on a laptop. That affordable capacity gives users the opportunity to work outside the office on projects with large data footprints. But it also can expose your company to liability if a storage device holding classified data falls into the wrong hands.

Encryption seems to be the obvious way to prevent data leaks, but because software encryption tools add some delay and some complexity, that option hasn't gained much popularity with users.

Hitachi and Seagate recently started to offer 2.5-inch disk drives with native, hardware-based, full-disk encryption. These solutions offer companies another option for laptop data protection that promises to be reliable and easy to implement -- without the performance slowdowns you get from software tools.

In March Seagate announced its line of Momentus 5400 FDE.2 drives, with capacities ranging from 80GB to 160GB. More recently, Hitachi GST (Global Storage Technologies) countered, offering the factory-activated Bulk Data Encryption option on all Travelstar drives with both 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM.

Despite their differences, these drives have in common a set-and-forget encryption capability: After you activate encryption, all content will be automatically encoded with a strong cipher.

It's worth noting that activating encryption also adds a boot-level password that will keep prying eyes from reaching your data, even if the drive is transferred to a different machine. Should you change your mind and decide, for example, that the drive has to be redeployed to a different user, you can deactivate encryption at any time.

There is an additional benefit to having full drive encryption: quick obliteration. Throw away the encryption key and all data becomes inaccessible.

Load and lock

For my evaluation, Seagate sent not just a bare drive but an ASI Computer Technologies laptop mounting a SATA 120GB Momentus FDE.2, a fingerprint reader, and a TPM (Trusted Platform Module). The laptop came preinstalled with Windows XP and the Embassy Security Center, a suite of applications from Wave Systems that simplifies managing the security features of the hard drive and of the whole system.

From Hitachi, I received just the drive: a 200GB, 7200 RPM Travelstar 7K200 also with SATA connection. Installing the drive in one of the laptops in my lab was fun, but end-users won't have to go through that; they'll get it preinstalled on a laptop. (At publishing time the vendor had not made any public announcements of this sort, but it's reasonable to speculate that partnerships with laptop manufacturers and vendors of security management software will develop in the future.)

Both drives had encryption features disabled, so my first task was to choose a proper password, store it in a safe place, and proceed with the activation.

Activating the encryption on the Seagate drive was a breeze. From Windows I started Trusted Drive Manager, the friendly GUI from Wave Systems that makes activating encryption easy and intuitive.

After choosing my drive and clicking the Initialize button, I was able to maintain my Windows user name for controlling encryption. This is a boon for users because they won't have to remember a different authentication pair for encryption.

The GUI also simplifies controlling other features, such as crypto erasing the drive content and removing protection.

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