Thwarting Elbonians with Proprietary Memory Devices

Recently, a coworker showed me the following Dilbert comic strip:

Dilbert comic strip showing Elbonians trying to plug a USB flash drive into a smartphone.

DILBERT © 2016 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

If you look closely, you will notice the Elbonian is holding a Datakey RUGGEDrive™ memory token. Okay, I may be taking some liberties with that assertion, but I think that it is safe to say that this strip does demonstrate one of the benefits of the non-standard/proprietary form factor of Datakey portable memory devices. The benefit that I am speaking of is increased security.

On its own, a non-standard form factor does not qualify as a robust security solution. What the comic strip above points out however, is that this simple physical-layer security feature can be sufficient to prevent access by those who lack the knowledge or motivation to circumvent it. Besides thwarting Elbonians, there are other benefits to using a portable memory device with a non-standard/proprietary form factor.

Protection from Malware
In addition to preventing access to the stored data by those who lack the requisite knowledge or motivation, a portable memory device that uses a non-standard/proprietary form factor also helps to protect the embedded host it plugs into from malware. Take the case of the USB port, a common way to introduce viruses and other malware. If an embedded application required the use of a USB flash drive, but the OEM wanted to limit the device’s exposure to malware, a proprietary RUGGEDrive™ receptacle could be used instead of the standard USB connector. A UFX RUGGEDrive™ memory token provides USB flash drive functionality (i.e. the system talks to it just like a standard USB removable mass storage device), but now it is the only device that will physically plug in to the receptacle.

Reduce/Eliminate Risk of Theft
One of the challenges faced by OEMs who use consumer memory devices like USB flash drives and SD cards is that once their embedded devices are in the field, the memory device can become a target for theft. Sadly, because an SD card, for example, can be used in digital still and video cameras, these memory cards can “disappear” once they are out in the field. The non-standard/proprietary form factor of the DFX RUGGEDrive™ memory token provides SD card functionality, but has an extremely low risk of theft since it can’t be used with consumer electronic devices.

Limited Support and Testing Requirements
When a standard form factor SD card is used, the designer needs to consider all devices that will fit in that socket. For the SD card form factor, this could include MMC cards, SD cards, SDHC cards, SDXC cards and more. There are also scores of manufacturers, each with many models. While the SD standard should help ensure compatibility without the designer having to test all of the cards in existence, it is likely that some compatibility issues could exist with some cards. When a non-standard form factor is used, this exposure is greatly reduced.

Additional Revenue Source
Designing an embedded system that uses a memory device with a proprietary form factor allows the OEM to receive additional revenue from the sale of these memory devices. When a standard USB flash drive or SD card is used, this revenue often goes to a local or online electronics retailer.

Increased Ruggedness
One final benefit to mention is that departing from the standard form factor can allow for a memory device that is much more physically robust than an equivalent consumer memory device. I recently wrote an article titled, “Ruggedizing the SD Card” that appeared in Embedded Systems Engineering. The article presents what manufacturers have done to make SD cards that are more robust than consumer cards. The one area where these cards fall short is physical ruggedness, as they have chosen to stick to the defined dimensions called out in the SD card specification. Departing from these standard dimensions allows the DFX RUGGEDrive™ memory token to deliver SD card functionality in a much more robust form factor.

While standards are important to help ensure interoperability and consistent, reliable operation for portable memory devices, there are many benefits for OEMs who chose to use a memory device that uses a non-standard/proprietary form factor. I think even the Elbonians would agree with that assertion.

Paul Plitzuweit
Senior Product Manager - Datakey, ATEK Access Technologies, LLC