How to Simplify your USB Life
A look at useful universal serial bus drive management utilities
One of the more useful pieces of hardware to be associated with personal computers is the now ubiquitous universal serial bus (USB) drive. You may know it
through one of its other monikers, such as thumb drive, memory drive, etcetera. Some people consider this a curse, making it very easy for information to leak out of a company. If systems are not configured properly, they can make it very easy for viruses and other maul ware to leak in as well. However, whether you hate them or love them, with the near extinction of the floppy drive, it is almost impossible to operate an organization without them.
Having said this, it is also true that they can be one of the most frustrating devices around to use. When all goes well, which it usually does, these drives can be very transparent, even those that encrypt your data. When things don’t work the way they are supposed to, it can make you want to shoot something. While this is sometimes due to bugs in the drivers incorporated into the USB drive, more often than not, it is the result of another application refusing to properly release all of the resources that it claimed. Sometimes, hard as it is to believe, it may even be due to bugs in the operating system.
Hey, I didn’t say Windows. If that popped into your head, it’s not my fault! Actually, you could make a case, at least in the instance of Windows, that it isn’t actually a bug at all, not that making that argument would do much to lower your blood pressure when it happens. This particular instance is a result of two different Windows’ modules doing exactly what they were designed to do, but stepping on each other in the process. This is most notable in instances where you have mapped one or more logical network drives to drive letters in Windows, say F: or G:. As you added new USB drives, the system kept incrementing the assigned drive letters until it finally assigned the same drive letter to both the network and USB drives.
Perhaps the easiest way to eliminate this problem, on a spot basis, is to go into the Windows administrator functions and remap the USB drive to another drive letter. To do this in Windows XP, first click on Start then, after the Start window opens, right click on My Computer and click on the Manage menu option. This will open the Computer Management window. If minimized, expand the Storage option in the left pane by clicking on the plus sign to the left of it. Now click on the Disk Management option under Storage. The right pane of the Computer Management window will now be subdivided. The top section will display the recognized drive volumes. The bottom section will display information about the health of each drive. Right click on the drive icon in the upper right window and select Change Drive Letter and Paths… from the pop-up menu that appears. A Change Drive Letter and Paths for window will appear displaying the currently assigned drive letter. To change this to another value, simply click the Change… button, opening up a Change Drive Letter or Path window which allows you to alter the designated drive letter. To accept this new value, simple click the OK button. If you change your mind and decide you don’t want to make any changes, just click the Cancel button.
Unfortunately, you have to have rights to access the Disk Management functions. I’ve discovered that it is not uncommon for organizations with a bureaucratic IT support group to restrict access to these functions, usually by using Windows’ Group Policy feature. This leaves you in the even more frustrating position of knowing how to solve the problem, but not being allowed to implement it. According to some Web sites, this problem became an issue with Windows XP, where the network drives (shares) were allocated specifically to the context of the user who was logged in and were not visible to the system. Windows XP Service Pack 3 is reputed to fix this problem, but I can’t confirm that.
Even if you never encounter the above problem, there are still plenty of potential frustrations in working with USB drives. Fortunately, there are a number of utilities, many of them free, to sooth these frustrations. As is frequently true these days, you can pull most of them down from the Web. As a caveat, you should remember that not everything on the Web is what it claims to be. It is not unheard of for people to rename malware with the names of perfectly legitimate programs, so make sure you perform a virus scan on anything you download before you run it!
One of the utilities that I’ve come to use frequently is USB Disk Ejector v.1.1.2 from Bgbennyboy. This utility is very flexible and can be used in a GUI or command line mode. In the GUI mode, simply open the utility and double click on the appropriate USB drive letter, and it will attempt to eject the drive. It is limited by Windows functionality though. So, if Windows can’t safely shut the drive down, this utility won’t be able to either.
As convenient as the GUI mode is, its extensive set of command line switches may make it even more useful there, particularly if you are including it in a batch file used to run other programs. It can be set to remove drives by name or drive letter. Even more interestingly, by a little clever gymnastics, it can be instructed to shutdown whichever drive from which it is running. It basically does this by copying a version of itself to Windows’ temp folder, restarting the application in ‘mobile mode,’ shutting down the appropriate USB drive, deleting the copy of itself from the temp folder and, finally, shutting down.
Another useful utility of a slightly different type is Uwe Sieber’s USB Drive Letter Manager (USBDLM v4.2.3). Unlike most other USB drive utilities; this application is designed to run as a service under Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Vista. Because it is running as a service, it is capable of modifying the designated drive letters without regard to the user’s assigned privileges, i.e. you don’t have to log in as an administrator. It also appears to contain significantly more intelligence than the other USB drive utilities I’ve seen. For example, instead of blindly assigning the next drive letter to a USB drive, it will first check to see if that is assigned to a network drive and instead assign the next available letter. In addition, it allows you to reserve drive letters so that they are not available for use with local drives. It even allows you to assign a designated drive letter to a specific USB drive. Another fascinating feature is that it can remove the drive letter from unused ports on multifunction card readers so that they don’t consume unnecessary letters for their possibly 20+ supported formats.
While free for personal and educational use, USBDLM does require a license for commercial use. However, the licensing is quite liberal, starting at $14.40 and dropping to $2.40 in volume. Site and world licenses are also available. Installation is exceptionally easy; I’d give an example, but I don’t want to be sued by Geico. Adding additional value to this tool is that it is bundled with several variants to an additional USB utility for reporting detailed configuration information regarding the installed USB drives. This information can be invaluable when attempting to trouble shoot a recalcitrant system.
With any system as complex as the modern PC, there is always the possibility of unexpected synergistic interactions. However, the above tools and techniques should simplify your USB life. We are always on the lookout for better ways of doing things. If you’ve found another useful utility, please share it with us, along with why you like it. If it makes our online life easier, we’ll be happy to share it.
John Joyce is the LIMS manager for Virginia’s State Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services. He may be contacted at editor@ScientificComputing.com.