Retrotechtacular: Double For Nothing

If you are in the market for web hosting in 2021 and you sign up with one of the cloud computing providers, you’ll soon see how the different resources are priced. Storage and bandwidth are cheap, while CPU time is expensive. This reflects the state of a modern computer, in which a typical disk drive now holds a terabyte or more and rising by the year while a new processor is becoming a bottleneck whose performance hasn’t increased as much as the manufacturers would like over models from years ago.

Twice As Much Hardware From A Bit Of Software?

In the early 1990s though it was a different matter. A 486 or early Pentium processor was pretty powerful compared to the DOS or Windows 3.1 software it was expected to run, and it was the memory and disk space attached to it that limited performance… and cost an arm and a leg. There was a period in about 1995 when a supposed fire in a chip factory somewhere sent RAM prices into the hundreds of dollars per megabyte, briefly causing an epidemic of RAM raiding in which criminals would break into offices and take only the SIMs from the computers.

A solution to this problem came perhaps surprisingly from the software industry. Disk Doubler was a DOS driver that promised more disk space, achieving this seemingly impossible feat by compressing the disk to fit more data on it. Processor power swapped for disk space was a reasonable trade at the time so it became extremely popular, and eventually Microsoft incorporated their own disk compression into DOS. In some cases it could even speed up a computer with a slow disk drive, as I found out as a student with a 286 packing an MFM drive.

Something For Nothing, Perhaps It’s Too Good To Be True.

If compression could increase disk space then couldn’t it do the same for RAM? The industry came to the rescue once more with an array of RAM doubler products, first applying the disk doubling technique to on-disk virtual memory, and then doing the same with the contents of the memory itself. The first approach worked at the expense of a system slow-down, while the second, not so much. In fact it was little more than a scam, with software products promising much but delivering absolutely nothing behind the scenes.

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