by Christopher Lindquist

Unshackled: The Portable Life

May 02, 20064 mins

My succesful attempt to build a Ruby on Rails development environment on a USB thumb drive whet my appetite for making more of my digital life as portable as possible. The goal: To never bring my laptop home again while still having access to all the files and applications I need but without relying on remote storage sites (thus freeing me to use computers hobbled by a lack of Internet access or slow dial-up connections.)

My thumb drive experience taught me two things. First, thumb drives are not yet cost effective on a dollar-per-gig basis when it comes to very large files. Second, thumb drives are slow. So I decided to take a slight physical size hit in return for dramatically increased capacity and performance.

So I hit (my favorite online tech buying location: fast, cheap shipping and reviews by customers who seem to really know what they’re talking about.) Just north of $100 later I had a Hitachi 2.5-inch, 60GB hard drive, a Bytecc external, USB-powered enclosure, and a Belkin retractable USB cable. Installing the drive in the little aluminum Bytecc box took five minutes, and I was ready to roll.

First stop: Here I was able to grab Portable Firefox (warning: you can copy over your desktop profile, but some extensions might not work properly anymore–mine all worked fine), Portable OpenOffice and  PStart, a launcher application that lets you populate a list with portable applications for easy launch when you attach your drive. I also downloaded a portable virus scanner called ClamWin, because once you attach your portable drive to a new system, you should assume that it may now be infected.

Apps in hand, I created an autorun.inf file in the root of my portable drive that lets me quickly launch PStart so I can get access to my apps without a lot of clicking (Note: I couldn’t find a way to force AutoPlay to run PStart immediately–I still need to click OK once. Anyone have a registry hack to get around this?)

Now, for my data. I keep a local copy of all my work files in the My Documents folder on my laptop. I wanted to have a copy of that on my portable drive. Being cheap, I went looking for a free solution. A lot of people seem to love Allway Sync for this very purpose, but I also found Microsoft’s SyncToy for Windows XP, which doesn’t have as many options as Allway Sync, but is extremely simple to install and operate. A few clicks later, I had all my data stored on my hard drive.

Now what? IBM hasn’t released a “portable” and free version of Notes yet, so I’m forced to use Domino remote access, which is both ugly and slow–but workable. (I could go Ben Worthen’s way and forward all my Notes mail to Gmail or another private webmail account, but I don’t relish comment flames, so lets stick within corporate IT policy.)

Finally…encryption.  I’ve read and written enough stories about companies who were so woefully stupid as to allow corporate data to float around unencrypted that I’d be the world’s biggest hypocrite if I didn’t encrypt this disk. (Not that my story drafts are as valuable as even a hundred social security numbers, but still.)

So I downloaded the open source TrueCrypt tool that lets you encrypt individual files and entire partitions and…not folders. Damn. Time to repartition my portable drive. It would have been nice to have discovered this before I had nine gig of files already installed.

After backing up my portable drive, killing my one big partion, creating a pair of smaller ones, and reloading my data (including putting all my work files into the encrypted partition) I seem to be well on my way to a truly portable lifestye. Our production system is currently accessible only through a client and VPN, so that’s off limits, but I can always download .DOC versions of the files for editing at home.

No screen. No keyboard. No human interface of any kind, but if I can find a computer with a USB port, I should be ready to go.