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50th Anniversary of invention of disk drives


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Michael Black

ZX Spectrum had so-called microdrives - endless loop tapes:

1993 is pretty late, but not unconceivable - during the 1980s, hard drives were a luxury on most home computer systems. (Except the PC, which kind of mutated into a "home computer" towards the end of that decade.)

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One of my acquintances owned an Amiga 500 in the late 1980s, but couldn't afford buying an SCSI controller and a hard drive for it. Instead, he had maxed out the floppy controller. He had a stack of three daisy-chained external floppy drives, plus the internal one that comes standard with the machine.

AmigaOS allows addressing floppies both by the device name of a physical floppy drive (such as "df0:", "df1:", etc.) and by the logical volume label of a formatted, mounted disk (such as "Workbench:", "DeluxePaint:", etc.) that is currently inserted in one of the drives. If you use the logical volume labels in paths, command line commands, etc., it doesn't really matter in which drive the disk (volume) currently resides - the OS will automatically access the correct one. In addition to that, AmigaOS automounts floppies when they're inserted, and if you try to use a non-existing, non-mounted volume label in whatever context that requires dealing with paths and filenames, a dialog (or a "requester" in Amiga-speak) will pop up and ask for that volume to be inserted in any drive.

So, this acquintance of mine had devised an elaborate scheme where all his programs were stored on a series of numbered floppies, labeled with a finite set of base names (for categorizing them a bit), plus a running number. Then there was one master boot floppy that defined a huge list of aliases, which referred to all the application programs, tools, and utilities in his Debt Collection by complete, absolute paths, including the volume label. For example, there might have been an alias "dpaint" for the file path "Graphics Tools 04:DeluxePaint-Dpaint". If he typed "dpaint" on the command line, the OS would ask for the volume "Graphics Tools 04:" to be inserted in any drive. After inserting that disk - AmigaOS automatically detects disk changes - the program would load and run. (On the other hand, had the disk already been in some of the drives, the program would have been loaded and run right away.)

Since he had four floppy drives, he could work with a boot-system disk, two application disks and a data disk (for saving personal files) simultaneously. Or three application disks, or whatever other reasonable permutation. The AmigaOS doesn't care which disks he puts in which drives as far as it can find the correct volume labels. And if it can't, it will ask for the correct disk to be inserted. Additionally, present working directory, programs with open files, etc. will retain their awareness of the volume label even if the referenced disk is temporarily removed from a drive and replaced with another one. Processes that, at some point, need to access the removed disk, will just ask it to be inserted again, referring to the disk by its volume label.

This way every single program he owned was right at his fingertips, and he could manage his Debt Collection of floppy disks quite painlessly, almost as if they had been continuous, hard-drive alike storage space.

-- znark


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