Raising doubt about the general-purpose desktop computer . . .

The sneaker net revival

by Conrad Weisert, January 5, 2005
©2005 Information Disciplines, Inc.

IDI's "Issue of the Month" for January, 2005. This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright credit is included

sneaker net
The sharing of software or data files among multiple workstations by simply carrying disks, tapes, or other removable media from one workstation to another as needed. This is an insider's slang term best avoided in writing and presentations.

Compared to a local area network (LAN), this method of file sharing offers low cost, high capacity, and unlimited flexibility, but slow speed and very little version control or assurance of file integrity.

- Que Programmer's Dictionary, 1993, ISBN 1-56529-125-5, p. 363

In 1993 that slang term was used most often in a derogatory sense. Given the power of emerging technology, carrying diskettes around an office, or even around a house, was seen as, at best, a crude stopgap.

Today, however, many home users are reconsidering the use of removable storage media for one particular purpose: isolating Internet access. So are small offices, where individual desktop machines have Internet access.

Malicious virus programs are propagated mainly through the Internet. Opening a web page or an E-mail attachment may provide, with help from local bug-ridden software, entrée to such unwelcome programs. The result of letting a rogue program get control of your desktop computer may range from mild inconvenience to loss of the entire contents of your local fixed disk and even data on your network servers. Recovery may take several days and some valuable files may be lost forever.

For surprisingly little money you can now buy a separate machine configured with a web browser, the usual browser add-ons, and an E-mail manager. That machine doesn't need to be able to run an Office suite or a database manager. It doesn't need gigabytes of fixed disk or a huge RAM. If desk space is tight it can share a monitor and keyboard with your general-purpose computer. It doesn't even need a fancy "firewall". If a virus slips in, you just rebuild the system in a few minutes.

Once you have such a specialized machine, you'll never again allow your general-purpose desktop computer, much less your LAN, to be connected to the Internet. With that source of viruses isolated, you'll be free of worry about the integrity of your data or software files. All it needs is a removable medium device compatible with your other computer(s).

These days such a removable medium is likely to be a mini USB "flash drive", which has a large capacity and reasonable cost. It's not suitable for permanent archiving, but it's perfect for data interchange among separate computers.

Finally, you're not constrained by the operating system. At Information Disciplines we recently installed an Apple OS X machine for internet use (E-mail, web browsing, and maintaining this web site), while we continue to use a Windows® machine for general office work and a Linux machine for software development. Since the Windows machine never talks to the Internet, we worry a lot less about malevolent intruders.

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Last modified January 5, 2004