Sneakernet vs. Wireless: Round One

Readers pick sides between moving files by hand or letting wireless technology do the lifting. Who comes out on top?

Is there still a place in this modern, wireless millennium for something as old-fashioned as data transfer via sneakernet? For those that have forgotten, thats walking your data where it needs to go in some form of removable media. Storage Supersite readers gave their opinions on the usefulness of storage walkabouts.

The discussion was sparked by a column earlier this week covering Colby Systems Corp.s release of a 2GB hard disk Compact Flash-sized card. The company sells industrial digital video computer systems for casinos and police cars. Instead of downloading the video data with a wireless connection, the embedded systems require users to hand carry the data in small drives to a transfer station for collection. See Storage Newcomer Readies New High-Capacity Card for Digital Cameras for more information.

Sneakernet is still practical according to some readers. And its now able to ride the USB bandwagon, an advantage missing with most previous removable formats.

"Sneakernet will be around for a long long time," systems analyst James Doffing said. "I thought it was starting to wane until the introduction of flash drives. Now, for less than $100 you can buy a 256MB USB flash drive and it will last for a very long time. These flash drives are smaller than a floppy and almost all PCs now have a USB port."

Still, other readers looked forward to a future free of wires and even the need to slide a piece of removable media into a drive.

"Some version of sneakernet will always be practical for certain applications, depending on what you consider sneakernet," Gary Lee of Eagan, Minn. suggested. He offered that paper records and business cards are non-digital examples of sneakernet. "In a manner of speaking," he said.

"However, once something is digitally encoded it will become more and more cost effective to bypass the physical transport," Lee continued. "We should expect the demand for bandwidth for wireless apps to explode as the technology becomes more popular. The current changing of standards has pushed a lot of 802.11a and 802.11b equipment down to closeout prices, which in turn makes it affordable for home use.

"Once mainstream users see wireless in the homes of early adopters and hear that it is affordable, they go wild," Lee said. "That will get people thinking of wireless as possible. Right now, most vendors are still pushing the [wireless] rock uphill. Once business users also think it is cheap enough, the industry will have the market potential to drive down prices on quality equipment."

On the other hand, many readers saw great value in sneakernet, especially for its greater speed in data transfer for large files and especially for its fundamental security. Sneakernet offers a very understandable security: its either in your pocket or not. The same cant be said for wireless networking.

"Beyond a doubt, sneakernet is 100 percent secure under the right conditions--theres no way that wireless can be that secure," John Davis observed. "There are times when sneakernet just makes sense and wireless does not. When you have a hundred clients trying to use a limited bandwidth, as in the article, there is going to be a problem. But with sneakernet the drives could, in theory, be stacked (physically) and then automatically moved in and out of the machine with maximum speed data transfers. With no limits on bandwidth, that [transfer] would be very fast."

"You cannot beat sneakernet for ultra-high capacity for the transport of data, and security and uptime," advised Mike Miller of St. Clair Shores, Mich. "There is no way most systems can provide the service that a good sneakernet can. Now, for convenience give us a wired or wireless network. But if you need to send data with high security, or very large files fast, then sneakernet is the way to go."

While I agree with the sentiment expressed and appreciate sneakernets fast data transport, I dont know if Im totally convinced about the actual security of sneakernet. In the case of Colbys police customers, the hard drive card just has to make the journey from the parking lot into the station.

All the same, youre talking to a guy who recently lost his cell phone, which for some of us is now a talking-enabled form of data storage. When my sneakernet storage is in my hand or my pocket, its pretty secure. But not absolutely secure.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.