Epyx Fast Load cartridge

Epyx Fast Load cartridge

The Epyx Fast Load cartridge, released in 1984, was the first commercially successful Commodore 64 fast load product. Commodore’s 1541 disk drive was much slower than competing disk drives, so fast load cartridges became popular. While the Epyx product was first, and was very popular, it didn’t have the market to itself for very long. Its developer, Scott Nelson, went on to produce other fast loader products as well.

Epyx Fast Load was a plug-in cartridge that replaced the Commodore 64’s stock ROM disk loading routine with a more efficient routine that was about five times as fast. The result was that software that normally took three minutes to load often took closer to 30 seconds with the cartridge.

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What did a Commodore 64 cost?

What did a Commodore 64 cost?

It’s pretty widely known that the Commodore 64 was the first 64K computer to sell for under $600. But what did a Commodore 64 cost over time?

At its introductory price of $595, the price was revolutionary. In December 1981, an Atari 800 with 32K of RAM cost $1,000.

Not only that, Commodore dropped the price very aggressively. The reason was that Commodore expected the Japanese to enter the computer market and undercut prices.

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Commodore 64 vs 128

Commodore 64 vs 128

Commodore introduced the Commodore 128 in 1985 as an upgrade path from the Commodore 64, the most popular model of computer of all time. The 128 addressed the 64’s biggest shortcomings while remaining mostly compatible with its hardware and software. That makes the Commodore 64 vs 128 a natural comparison, even more natural than comparing the 64 with the VIC-20.

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LOAD “*”,8,1 – what it means

LOAD “*”,8,1 – what it means

The smartest guy in the room cited the Commodore command LOAD “*”,8,1 as something he used for years but never understood why it worked except it was the command he used to load games on his Commodore 64.

So I explained it. Now I can explain it to you too.  Read more

My earliest memory of using a computer

Gizmodo asked this weekend about earliest computer memories, and illustrated it with a computer that sported a 3.5″ floppy drive. Young whippersnappers.

My first memory was in 1981 or 1982. Dad went to see one of his coworkers in his home, and brought me along. He had a son a few years older than me, probably about 12 years old, and there in the living room was something I’d never seen before, connected to a television and sitting on a desk. “What’s that?” I asked.

“This is a computer,” he said. Then he inserted a Choplifter cartridge and taught me how to play. Read more

Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

There’s a nasty rumor floating around that in Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, Steve Jobs, Jobs alleges that Commodore copied the Apple II when making its first computer, 1977’s PET. Here’s the story of Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET.

The book doesn’t come right out and say it, but it insinuates it. I know how the PET came to be, and the PET would have happened whether the Apple II ever existed or not.
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I’ve been messing around with Backup Exec 10

Veritas is trying mightily to unseat Microsoft as my least-favorite software company. I do believe Backup Exec to be the worst piece of software of any kind on the market. In fact, babysitting Backup Exec is the reason I haven’t been around much.

I’m looking to version 10 for some relief (and the much-needed 1.0 quality that Microsoft usually delivers around version 3–when Veritas will deliver it probably is an interesting Calculus problem).The downside to version 10: I’m told there’s no more Windows NT 4.0 support. Can’t back ’em up. I haven’t actually tried installing the remote agent on an NT4 box to see if it’s unsupported as in we-won’t-help-when-it-breaks or unsupported as in no-can-do. Smart businesses hocked their NT4 servers a couple of years ago. I won’t say anything else, except that not every business is smart.

More downside: If a tape fills up and you can’t change it because the server is offsite and/or behind locked doors that require approval from 14 middle managers and a note from your mother to get to, under some circumstances Backup Exec 10 will hang indefinitely while cancelling the job. Version 9 had the same problem. Bouncing the services will usually relieve the hang, but sometimes you have to reboot.

It’s tempting to put Backup Exec and your tape drive on your biggest file server to get faster backups. But trust me, if you put it on a server that’s dedicated to backups–its day job can be as a domain controller or some other task that’s shared by multiple, redundant mahcines–you’ll thank yourself. It’s very nice to be able to reboot your Backup Exec server without giving your seven bosses something else besides the cover sheet on your TPS reports to grumble about.

If you must put Backup Exec on your file server, set up DFS and mirror the file shares to another server. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy–just something that can prop things up while the server’s rebooting. And run Windows 2003, because it boots fast.

The upside: I can make Backup Exec 9.1 die every time by creating a direct-to-tape job and running it concurrently with a disk-to-disk-to-tape job. The tape portion of the second job will bomb every time. Veritas technical support tells me that bug was fixed in 9.1SP1. It wasn’t. But it’s fixed in 10.

There are some other features in 10, like synthetic backups, that promise to speed backups along. That would be very nice. It would also be nice if it would be reliable.

I’m not going to put it in production yet–when I first deployed 9, it fixed a lot of problems but it made a whole bunch of new ones–but maybe, just maybe, Backup Exec 10 will do what it’s supposed to do well enough that I can work something close to regular hours again.

Otherwise I’ll look forward to Backup Exec 11 and hope that it features more changes than just a new Symantec black-and-gold color scheme and wizards featuring Peter Norton. We’ll see.

Backup Exec misadventures

(Subtitle: My coworkers’ favorite new Dave Farquhar quote)

If your product isn’t suitable for use on production servers, then why didn’t you tell us that up front and save us all a lot of wasted time?

(To a Veritas Backup Exec support engineer when he insisted that I reboot four production web servers to see if that cleared up a backup problem.)When I refused to reboot my production web servers, he actually gave me a bit of useful information. Since Veritas doesn’t tell you this anywhere on their Web site, I don’t feel bad at all about giving that information here.

When backing up through a firewall, you have to tell Backup Exec what ports to use. It defaults to ports in the 10,000 range. That’s changeable, but changing it through the user interface (Tools, Options, Network) doesn’t do it. It takes an act of Congress to get that information out of Veritas.

What Veritas doesn’t tell you is that the media server (the server with the tape drive) should talk on a different range of ports than the remote servers you’re backing up. While it can still work if you don’t, chances are you’ll get a conflict.

The other thing Veritas doesn’t tell you is that you need a minimum of two, and an ideal of four, ports per resource being backed up. So if the server has four drives and a system registry, which isn’t unusual, it takes a minimum of 10 TCP ports to back it up, and 40 is safer.

Oh, and one other thing: If anyone is using any other product to back up Windows servers, I would love to hear about it.

Thoughts on backups

Backups have weighed heavily on my mind lately. When you have 125 servers to tend to at work, chances are one of them is going to fail eventually. Really what seems to happen is they fail in bunches.

One of my clients has a problem. He’s out of capacity. And that’s gotten me thinking about backups in general.You see, my client’s golf buddies are telling him nobody backs up to tape anymore. Backing up to disk is the hot thing now. Here’s the theory. Your network is fast, right? Why make it wait on the tape drive? Back up all your servers to disk instead, and they can all back up at once, and hours-long backups take minutes instead, and restores take seconds. And no more paying $3,000 for tape drives and $6,000 for a rotation of tapes for it!

Now here’s the problem. A CIO hears "disk" and he thinks of that 400-gigabyte IDE drive he saw in the Sunday paper sales ad for $129 with a $60 mail-in rebate. (It wasn’t really quite that big, and it wasn’t really quite that cheap, but these things are always better on Monday morning than they were the day before.)

No enterprise bases something as important as backups on a single consumer-grade IDE disk. For one thing, it won’t be fast enough. For another, they’re not designed to be used that heavily, that frequently. An enterprise could get away with something like HP’s $1200 entry-level NAS boxes, which use cheap IDE drives but in a RAID configuration, so that when one of those cheap disks fails, it can limp along for the rest of the night until you swap out the failed drive. The chances of one drive failing are small but too large for comfort; the chances of two drives failing at once are only slightly better than Ronald Reagan winning the Republican primary this year. With Abraham Lincoln as his running mate.

One can set up some very nice backups on a Gigabit Ethernet setup. Since Gigabit’s theoretical bandwidth is about 3 time that of Ultra320 SCSI’s theoretical bandwidth, you can back up three servers at once at full speed. Drop in a second NIC, and you can back up six. In reality, the disks in the NAS box can’t come close to keeping up with that rate, but the disk can still back up everything much faster than tape will. Even a lightning-fast state of the art 200/400 GB LTO drive.

Frankly, with such a setup it becomes practical to back up your most important servers over the lunch hour, to avoid losing half a day’s work.

But you don’t get it for $129.

And in reality, no enterprise in its right mind is throwing out tapes either. If they back up to disk, they spool that backup to tapes the next day, so they can store the tapes offsite for archival and/or disaster recovery purposes.

How important is this? I remember about a year ago getting a request for a file that was changed in the middle of a week, and the person wanted that copy from the middle of the week, not from our Friday backups that are archived longer. Even with a tape rotation of 40 tapes, I couldn’t get the file. The tape had been overwritten in the rotation a day or two before.

While rare, these instances can happen. A 40-tape rotation might not be enough to avoid it. Let alone just a couple hundred gigs of disk space.

But what about home?

Consumer tape drives had a terrible reputation, and based on my experience it was largely deserved. The drives had a terrible tendency to break down, and the failure rate of the tapes themselves was high too. The lack of comfort with enterprise-grade tape that I see in my day-to-day work may stem from this.

The last time I was in a consumer electronics store, I don’t think I saw any tape drives.

I suspect most people back their stuff up onto optical disks of some sort, be it CD-R or RW, or some form of writable DVD. The disks are cheap, drives that can read them are plentiful, and if floppies are any indication, the formats ought to still be readable in 20 years. My main concern is that the discs themselves may not be. Cheap optical discs tend to deterriorate rapidly. Even name-brand discs sometimes do. We’ve had great luck with TDK discs ever since Kodak took theirs off the market, but all we can say is that over the course of three years, we haven’t had one fail.

The last time my church’s IT guy called asking about backups, we happened upon a solution: a rotation of USB hard drives. Plug it in, back it up, and take the drive home with you. It’s cheap and elegant. Worried about the reliability of the drives? That’s why you use several. Three’s the minimum; five drives would be better. Use a different drive every day.

It’ll work, and it’s pretty affordable. And since the drives can be opened up and replaced with internal drives, it has the potential for cheap future upgrades.

How about the reliability of hard drives? Well, I have a box full of perfectly readable 120-meg drives in my basement. They date from 1991-1993, for the most part. I bought them off eBay in the mid 1990s, intending to put them in computers I would donate to churches. The computers never materialized, so the drives sat. I fire one up every once in a while out of curiosity. The copies of DOS, Windows 3.1, and the DOS Netware client that were on them when I got them are still there.

Some technology writers have observed that modern IDE hard drives seem to have a use-by date; they just seem to have a tendency to drop dead if they sit unused for too long. I see this tendency in a lot of devices that use inexpensive electric motors. Starting them up every once in a while and giving them a workout to keep the lubricants flowing and keep them from turning glue-like seems to be the best way to keep them working.

At this stage, I’m less worried about the long-term viability of hard drives than I am about optical discs. Ask me again in 20 years which one was the better choice, and I’ll be able to answer the question a lot better.

If you’re stuck using optical discs, the best advice I can give is to use a brand of media with a good reputation, such as TDK, make multiple copies, and store them in a cool, dark, dry place. The multiple copies should preferably be stored in different cool, dark, dry places. Light seems to break down optical discs, and cooler temperatures as a general rule slow down chemical reactions. Dryness prevents chemical reactions with water and whatever the water might manage to pick up.

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