Not to dis your diskette, but there are some unexpected sector holes

Doing the floppy fandango

On Call We take a trip back in time to the era of floppy disks and cabinets of PDP-11 hardware for an On Call where knowing the difference between hard and soft makes all the difference.

Our tale comes from a reader Regomised as "Don" who describes himself as "an electrical engineer with credentials dating back to HP 2114 16-bit rackmount computers." Ah yes, the 2114. Not, we suspect, the tediously modern Pavilion model but something a good deal more historic, replete with knobs, switches and flashing lights.

It would be fair to say that Don enjoyed the golden age of computing. He told us he used a Digital PDP-LSI11/03 as his "desktop" until the era of the PC dawned. It also meant he was (and is) blessed with a lot of experience, something that came in handy when he decided to pay a visit to his wife's workplace over a lunch break.

"My wife," he said, "was a software configuration-control software release manager at a top-5 computer company."

She was normally involved in the mainframe side of the business but, following an acquisition of a startup specializing in ATMs, had found herself working with the teams dealing with the mechanical cash slingers.

Always keen for a tour of anywhere with new tech, Don was shown around the facility. "We walked into the 'lab'," he said, "the classic raised-floor A/C space that the main-frames got to enjoy, and passed by the crew working on the latest release of the ATM code.

"My wife quipped that they'd been at it all morning and couldn't get the code to load onto the floppies."

Ever helpful and always curious, Don offered his assistance and asked to look at one of the suspect floppy disks, "and for sheer luck spied a sector hole..."

For the uninitiated, hard sectored floppy disks have a hole for each "sector" (for want of a better word) while soft sectored disks have a single index hole. The holes punched into the hard sectored disks are present to let the controller know a new sector had started. Mixing the disk types, therefore, could prove problematic.

"Do you use hard sector media?" Don asked. "No," was the curt response.

"I spun the diskette in its jacket," Don told us, "and – sure enough – one sector hole appeared after another."

"Well, these are hard sectored media," he announced to the assembled techies.

PiDP-11 with PDP-11

Das blinkenlights are back thanks to RPi revival of the PDP-11


Silence descended, possibly while someone worked out just how many hours could have been saved if the label of the box of diskettes had been looked at a little more carefully.

"I guess that's what you call a 'Duh!' moment?" said Don.

"They looked at me like I was welcome to leave immediately... I said my farewell and moved on."

Lunch had never tasted so good.

Sometimes On Call is about problem solving, in person or remotely. And sometimes it is about spotting the breathtakingly obvious. Ever helped a user through their own multi-format moment? Tell us all about it with an email to On Call. ®

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