Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

How risky it is to run Ubuntu from a flash drive?

Question: I just installed Ubuntu on my 16 GB flash drive. I occasionally use it to edit documents or use the terminal to SSH to my server online, edit server files, and download online files to put on my server. Is my Ubuntu installation something that would cause my drive to wear out fast? There’s hardly any write activity during boot and shutdown. How long should I expect my drive to last?

Unfortunately, there’s no really clear answer to that question. To be honest, I don’t how much Ubuntu is writing to the installed drive, though my guess is probably not a lot. As long as you’re not memory constrained on the machine that you’re using it on, there’s a good chance that it’s mostly reading. When you become memory constrained, Ubuntu may fire up a paging file, which could cause a lot of write activity. But my guess is that Ubuntu itself isn’t doing a whole lot of writing.

I am a bit concerned about the flash drive, but it actually makes sense. Let me explain.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

The brief life of flash drives

The problem with flash drives is that companies use inexpensive materials to make the flash memory, so they wear out over time. This isn’t like a Solid State Drive (SSD) which uses a higher quality flash memory that actually lasts longer than most computers are expected to last.

Unfortunately, exactly how quickly they wear out is just impossible to say. It depends on exactly how much Ubuntu is writing to the disk – and even if it’s not a lot, it depends on the  quality of the flash drive that you have. So there’s no way to really predict.

In a situation like that, the solution is fairly simple. Back it up.

UbuntuBacking up your flash drive

Take that flash drive and do an image backup, a full backup, or whatever kind of backup makes sense for you and save it to a hard disk.The flash drive wearing out is a when-not-if situation, so when it does wear out, you can get a new one and put the backup image back onto this new device. Then, you’ll be up and running just fine.

How often you back up depends on how painful the loss would be. If the drive suddenly failed and you lost everything since the last backup, how far back would you want the backup image be?

Why a flash drive works in this case

But I want to be clear. I really like the idea of having Ubuntu installed on a USB device that you can basically plug in almost anywhere and just have it work. You have your own operating system on pretty much any computer to which you have access to the USB port and that will actually allow you to reboot from the USB. I think that’s a pretty neat thing.

I also think that using cheap flash drives is exactly the right thing to do for this. There’s no reason to spend a lot of money for this as long as you back it up. Once you’ve got it backed up then, then I think you can use this for a long time. You may go through a few flash drives as they wear out and that’s okay. The backups are going to save you from having this be a real problem.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

4 comments on “How risky it is to run Ubuntu from a flash drive?”

  1. I agree. I use my drive because there are always other students when I go to the library and I hardly ever get the same computer more than twice in a row, and I like to carry all my settings with me. But now I have another question: The only backup drive I have is being used for Time Machine on my Mac, and formatted to the Mac OS filesystem. How can I get Ubuntu to backup to this drive? I don’t think it knows the OS X filesystem out of the box.

    • To be honest I’m not sure. I’d be leery of backing up something else to a Time Machine backup drive, but that’s based on ignorance more than knowledge. I’d be more tempted, myself, to just get a second backup drive – thumbdrive or even your home computer.

  2. Since Ubuntu and other Linux distros can be run from optical media, ie. DVDs or CDs, I don’t think Ubuntu writes anything to the flash drive unless you specifically save a file to it so I don’t think this is a problem. If the disk wears out, the only thing you would lose are those file you create as you can just create a new one in a few minutes. And you should never create a file without backing it up.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.