The diskless PC revolution

Personal computers have changed dramatically over the past two decades, but one element has remained constant: processing power, device connectivity and fixed storage have all been combined in one central engine.

Whether you're using a handheld, laptop or desktop device, the data and software reside in the system itself, or they live on a server somewhere else in the network cloud, but they're all in the same place.

But that constant may change. Thanks to flash memory, it may soon be practical to have all of your data, plus most of your software, sitting conveniently in your pocket. When that happens, consumer and business computing alike could change significantly.

Here's how the basic hardware setup could develop: Instead of relying on fixed disks, PCs would have ports for two to four or more flash drives. One or two would hold the operating system and most of the programs. The others would be focused mainly or entirely on data. And these flash drives would be portable from system to system, although there might be a partial exception for small devices such as cell phones, cameras, personal organizers or music players. But even if they kept a little onboard storage, it could be loaded from and backed up to a flash drive fitting into at least one port.

This concept has one huge difference from most other diskless PC plans: Rather than all living on a big server in the cloud, your personal data (and software) would never leave your custody. Thus, issues of network reliability, service provider lock-in, service-provider privacy safeguards and so on would all be mitigated. What's more, migration is almost a nonissue; older fixed-disk computers with USB ports fit into that diskless world perfectly well.

I love the hardware implications of this idea. First of all every PC would benefit from huge improvements in memory-access speed. Beyond that, banishing the disk would slash laptop power requirements, and that means a huge overall weight reduction. And like other ideas about diskless PCs, this one would make it more affordable to optimize monitors, signal processors and the like for particular kinds of applications and room environments.

One loser from this change could be Microsoft. The price per gigabyte would increase, so bloatware would be harder to tolerate. Restrictive licensing practices might not fit well, either. But otherwise, software would benefit. In particular, voice recognition could become more practical, because you could port the training you've done of the system from device to device. The same goes for handwriting recognition and other customizations.

In particular, improving "disk" speed on PCs by multiple orders of magnitude could have all sorts of favorable consequences. Object file systems and full-PC search could be much more usable. Autosave would work better, and PCs wouldn't freeze as frequently as a result of browser cache thrashing. And as far as security permissions are concerned, anybody from number crunchers to engineering professionals could work efficiently on huge, personalized data sets.

Ah, yes -- security. Without the disk-access bottleneck, it would become reasonable to encrypt or decrypt a PC's entire database each time you logged off or on. No more security breaches from stolen laptops -- or, rather, from picked pockets and busted lockboxes, since it would no longer be a good practice to store the data with a thief-attracting laptop at all.

In another security-related area, two-factor authentication would also be easier, since the flash drive itself becomes the "thing you have," rather than a smart card or an RSA-style clicker device. Meanwhile, one objection that's been raised to this idea is, in my opinion, somewhat bogus. Yes, badly protected diskless machines aren't really secure; at least theoretically, they're vulnerable to "man in the middle" attacks. And perhaps that's an argument for continued use of laptops and against the idea of terminals in every hotel room -- although if you fear that kind of attack, why not fear spy cameras and audio bugs as well? But in any case, it's not a persuasive argument against corporate or home deployments. If your janitors can't be trusted, traditional PCs are at least as vulnerable as diskless ones.

Diskless PCs are too futuristic to figure into most current IT plans, although they do provide another reason to move away from Microsoft desktops (indeed, their support for dual booting will eventually smooth such a transition). But it's interesting to think about them now.