Thursday, July 21, 2005

From Floppy Disk to Flash Drive

The other day I received my new Corsair 1-Gigabyte USB Flash Drive via FedEx. One entire gigabyte of memory, in a little device the size and shape of a small jack knife handle!

We've come a long way since I got my first computer, a Leading Edge Model D, back in 1989. Actually by that time I'd already been tinkering with computers on and off, in one capacity or another, for about ten years. My Model D didn't even have a hard drive when I first bought it. Just two 5¼" floppy drives. I booted up off a floppy disk into MS-DOS 3.3. Kept two Rolodex-like plastic boxes next to my computer, one contained 5¼" disks of software, the other contained disks of data. I was constantly swapping different floppies in and out of drives A: and B:, depending on what I was doing with the computer at the moment.

I mean, what else could I do? A single 5¼" floppy disk held only 360 kilobytes. Most software you bought in the stores in those days came on 5¼" floppies, and I remember that some of those disks, for the sake of backward compatibility with computers even older than mine, held only 180 kilobytes.

At the Duke University computer center, they did eventually outfit some of their computers to handle both 5¼" and 3½" floppies. I remember experimenting with some 720 kilobyte 3½" disks; of course, I had no way to access them on my computer.

I did eventually get a hard drive for my computer, and it had the (to me) astonishing capacity of 42 megabytes. I had all my software, all of my years and years' accumulation of personal data, on that hard drive, and I never did come close to filling it up. Still using DOS 3.3; and I remember doing backups, with the DOS BACKUP command, to literally dozens and dozens of 5¼" floppies.

My brother at this time had a computer which could handle both 5¼" and 3½" floppies, and so I made archival backups of some of my data on 1.44 megabyte 3½" floppy disks. Of course, I still had no way to access them via my own computer.

In 1999, I finally got a new computer— an IBM ThinkPad. This had a floppy drive for 1.44 megabyte 3½" disks, and so now I was backing up my data to (get this) dozens and dozens of 1.44-meg 3½" floppies. I was discovering that data will expand to fill the space available to it.

The ThinkPad also had a CD drive, but it was read-only. So of no use for data backup.

Then, a year ago last September, I got a newer ThinkPad, and was so foolhardy as to install Linux on it. For data backup I decided to go to a Zip drive, mostly because it was Linux-compatible (though, par for the course with Linux, it took me a while to figure how to make it work). Beautiful external Zip drive, translucent blue plastic. Plug it into my USB port. Insert a 100 megabyte Zip disk (looks like a big, sturdy, beefed-up version of a 3½" floppy). Mount the Zip disk as /mnt/zip (this is, after all, Linux). Archive all my data in a tarball. And split the tarball up into chunks, each small enough to fit on a 100 megabyte Zip disk.

This time I was down to a handful of Zip disks for backup, forget that "dozens and dozens" crap. Still, it was a pain.

So, like I said, the other day I ordered this 1 gigabyte flash drive. One whole gigabyte. It arrives via FedEx, and I'm astounded. Size and shape of a small jack knife handle. Rubber coated, waterproof, almost indestructible. I plug it into the USB port on my computer, it's plug-and-play. It's mounted as /mnt/removable. I decide I don't need to back up my music, if I ever had to I could easily enough re-rip it all from my CDs. Everything else can now be backed up with the following single command:

tar --exclude ~/mp3 -cvpf /mnt/removable/backup.tar ~

(Yes, that's from the command line. What did you expect? I cut my teeth on DOS. Heck, I cut my teeth, back circa 1979, on a good old-fashioned keypunch machine.)

I'll confess, I haven't yet gotten the flash drive to do that USB 2.0 thing. It's more like USB 1.1, which is slower. But for data backup purposes that's fine, I just let it run in the background while I do something else. Hey, this is Linux, what did you expect?! ;-)



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