My Indispensable USB Toolkit

Many people carry around a USB stick to store and transfer files from place to place.  It is a crying shame that most of them are not aware of the incredible powers latent within their USB sticks.  The worst part is that much of this power is sitting right under their noses, untapped and wasted.  Lucky for you, I plan to give a quick description of what I do with my thumb drives, hopefully inspiring you to push the limits of your own flash drive.

The first, incredibly obvious, thing that you can do with a flash drive is to put small programs on it that you can take with you.  For example, I keep nethack (a game that features prominently in my post on gaming in linux) on my flash drives for use any time I’m stuck with a computer and not  much to do.  This happens an awful lot at school.  Others with more modern taste in games keep halo or starcraft handy (on a related note, I would really recommend the computer science classes at my school).

Although carrying around games in your pocket is fun, it’s not always really useful.  A much more useful tool to have around is a Putty client.  Putty is an ssh client, meaning that it allows you to connect to a secure shell (ssh) server on any computer, anywhere.  This means that if you’ve got an ssh server running on your computer (I do, makes life a lot easier), you can simply remotely log in from anywhere.  Need some obscure tool that you’ve only got on your home machine? Got it.  Forgot some important file? Found it.  Not only does this method give you a great deal of peace of mind, but it also causes everybody around you to ask you if you are hacking.  For some reason there is an unbreakable connection in the public mind between terminals, like the remote command prompt putty gives you,  and malicious computer use.

It is a distinct possibility that at this point you’re thinking that you a) already knew this, or b) have no use for it because you may not have an ssh server or don’t know how to operate a computer remotely from a command prompt.  Don’t give up on me yet, I’ve saved the best part for last.  You may or may not be aware that most newish computers and USBs give you the option to boot from a USB drive in much the same way as you could boot from a CD, Floppy disk (remember those?), or even a typical Hard Drive.  This means that you can install a whole operating system to your USB stick and boot it up anywhere you find a computer!  You can configure the operating system on the USB as much as you like and always boot into a familiar environment with all of your programs and settings already loaded, no matter where you go.

Personally, I have an 8gb usb  with BackTrack 4 (a Linux distribution dedicated to providing a platform for penetration testing) installed on it.  You can find an easy tutorial on how to do this here.  For brave souls who are undaunted by gentoo linux (the most configurable and therefore most difficult to set up linux distribution out there), my friend Jeff installed gentoo to his USB drive when his laptop’s hard disk gave out.  He now uses that as his primary operating system.  Although I haven’t tried them all myself, I believe you could install any Linux distribution to a USB drive.  In fact, I plan to set one up sometime soon with a basic arch linux configuration — I’ll let you know how that goes.  Another option, if you don’t have a massive USB stick available, is to go with Damn Small Linux (DSL).  DSL is a distribution that is commited to providing a functional environment that takes less than 50MB of space.  For a slightly larger variant, try DSL-N, DSL’s big brother.  I also plan to get myself a DSL usb stick, so I can have a different linux distro ready for any situation.  In fact, the options for installing Linux to a USB drive are so plentiful that there is a whole website dedicated to it.

As a final housekeeping note, you’ll note that the URL of my website has changed from to  Although still works for now, it is going to be phased out, so you should update your bookmarks.  I’m having some trouble getting my email and blog addresses changed, but I’ll make sure to let you know when I finally figure that out.


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