USB Flash Drive Etiquette – Do I really have to ‘safely’ remove hardware?

Consider the lowly USB flash drive, aka thumb, zip, jump, pocket, stick, or various, shall we say, more unsavory monikers we attach when they stop working. In just sixteen years, they’ve become a far cry from their humble origins.

The noble USB Flash Drive

Invented in 1999 by engineers from the Israeli company M-Systems, the original version had a short cable between the memory unit and the USB connector. There are, unsurprisingly, numerous competing claims to the origin of this device, but none have prevailed to date. A year later, IBM partnered with M Systems to produce the first integrated commercial unit, the 8 Mb DiskOnKey drive.

The DiskOnKey drive

It took another five years for the first major advancement in the technology, the 2.0 standard, to become widely available. With a possible throughput rate of several hundred megabyte per second, 2.0 was a notable improvement for flash drives, but still quite a bit slower than a portable solid state drive connected via SATA. By 2009, 3.0 drives were available commercially, sporting throughout rates up to several gigabytes per second, and 4.0 standard drives were announced earlier this year. Of course, these enhanced capabilities requires a USB port capable of supporting the higher standards; most computers available today feature 3.0 capable USB ports. Drive capacity has increased commensurately, from that initial 8 Mb to a 1 Tb drive today, with higher capacity on the way in the near future.
USB flash drives are built to be rugged, of course, but that fact is rendered moot when we abuse the little things. This begs the question, what is proper USB flash drive etiquette?

Don't yank that drive

Turns out proper handling, in particular, proper disconnecting, matters for two primary reasons. First, most operating systems have been built to expect that the drive you’ve plugged into yourUSB port is always there, until a proper disconnect command is rendered. When that’s not the case, those OS’s can get confused. Secondly, what you’re doing with your drive matters somewhat as well.

USB Flash Drive

What the former point means is that, to a large degree, the efficacy of a flash drive depends on the software that it’s interacting with; if the architects thereof have considered bad user behavior, AKA improper removal, you could be OK when you yank that drive – But maybe not. For instance, if at the time of your yank, your drive is simply reading data, as opposed to writing or saving, then your yank probably matters very little. However, if you were saving or writing, pulling that drive could well lead to lost data, corrupted file systems, and crashed programs.

The root of the problem lies in how software move data across that USB port to your drive. Given the relatively large quantity of data we move these days, most programs wait until a certain volume of data is accrued, and then transfer. Therefore, we truly do risk data loss if we yank without warning. Even if you initially saved the file you’re working on before the yank, doing so could still result in the loss of all your work.

USB Flash Drive

Taking a few seconds to properly terminate drive activity cures all those ills. When you disconnect via the ‘safely remove hardware’ routine, doing so alerts most programs that it’s time to chill, lets you know when a program isn’t ready for a flash drive disconnect, and generally stops all programs that are writing to your USB connected drive.
In other words, while the fast paced 21st century exhorts us to press ever onward, the fact is that it never, ever hurts to chill.