Bespoke Storage Technologies: The Alphabet Soup Found In Modern Hard Drives And Beyond

It seems like just yesterday (maybe for some of you it was) we were installing Windows 3.1 off floppy drives onto a 256 MB hard drive, but hard drives have since gotten a lot bigger and a lot more complicated, and there are a lot more options than spinning platters.

The explosion of storage options is the result of addressing a variety of niches of use. The typical torrenter downloads a file, which is written once but read many times. For some people a drive is used as a backup that’s stored elsewhere and left unpowered. For others it is a server frequently reading and writing data like logs or swap files. In all cases it’s physics that sets the limits of what storage media can do; if you choose wisely for your use case you’ll get the bet performance.

The jargon in this realm is daunting: superparamagnetic limit, LMR, PMR, CMR, SMR, HAMR, MAMR, EAMR, XAMR, and QLC to name the most common. Let’s take a look at how we got here, and how the past and present of persistent storage have expanded what the word hard drive actually means and what is found under the hood.

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The ZX Microdrive: Budget Data Storage, 1980s Style

An enduring memory for most who used the 8-bit home computers of the early 1980s is the use of cassette tapes for program storage. Only the extremely well-heeled could afford a disk drive, so if you didn’t fancy the idea of waiting an eternity for your code to load then you were out of luck. If you had a Sinclair Spectrum though, by 1983 you had another option in the form of the unique Sinclair ZX Microdrive.

This was a format developed in-house by Sinclair Research that was essentially a miniaturized version of the endless-loop tape carts which had appeared as 8-track Hi-Fi cartridges in the previous decade, and promised lightning fast load times of within a few seconds along with a relatively huge storage capacity of over 80 kB. Sinclair owners could take their place alongside the Big Boys of the home computer world, and they could do so without breaking the bank too much.

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Commodore Tape Drive Emulator On A Raspberry Pi

We imagine most of the people reading Hackaday have an old Raspberry Pi or two laying around. It’s somewhat less likely you’ve still got an 8-bit Commodore in working condition, but we’d wager there’s more than a few in the audience that can count themselves among both groups. So why not introduce them?

[RhinoDevel] writes in to tell us about CBM Tape Pi , an open source Commodore tape drive emulator for Raspberry Pi that needs only a handful of passive components to get wired up. Even better, the project targets the older Pis that are more likely to be languishing around in the parts bin. In the video after the break, a Commodore PET can be seen happily loading content from the original Raspberry Pi with its quaint little composite video connector.

Without any special software on the Commodore itself, the project allows the user to load and save PRGs on the Pi’s SD card, as well as traverse directories. Don’t expect stellar I/O, as [RhinoDevel] notes that no fast loader is currently implemented. Of course if you’re enough of a devotee to still be poking around a VIC-20 or C64 this far into 21st century, then we imagine you’ve got enough patience to get by.

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Atari Tape Drive Turned Security DVR

We know that a lot of our beloved readers don’t take kindly to abuse of vintage hardware, so the Atari fans in the audience may want to avert their eyes for this one. Especially if they’re particularly keen on spinning up their Jawbreaker cassette on authentic hardware, as [iot4c] has gutted an Atari XC12 Program Recorder to turn it into an enclosure for a Raspberry Pi video storage device.

Step one of this conversion was, as you might expect, removing all the original hardware from the cassette recorder case. From there, [iot4c] fitted the Raspberry Pi, a USB hard drive, and a YDS-5A DC-DC converter to power them. Depending on what the drive setup looks like, it might also make sense to add a USB powered hub. A length of Ethernet cable was left hanging out the back of the Atari XC12 so it could be plugged into the network, but a panel mount RJ45 connector could spruce things up a bit.

Of course, gutting an old piece of hardware and sticking a Pi into it isn’t exactly breaking any new ground at this point. But we did appreciate that [iot4c] went the extra mile to wire it up so the “Save” LED now doubles as a network activity indicator. Which pretty much brings it full circle in terms of functionality for a network-attached video recorder.

Earlier in the year [iot4c] converted a 65XE into a USB keyboard with the help of an Arduino Leonardo, but the vintage Atari aficionados will be happy to note that at least in that case the donor machine remained fully functional.

Teardown: D50761 Aircraft Quick Access Recorder

Everyone’s heard of the “black box”. Officially known as the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), it’s a mandatory piece of equipment on commercial aircraft. The FDR is instrumental in investigating incidents or crashes, and is specifically designed to survive should the aircraft be destroyed. The search for the so-called “black box” often dominates the news cycle after the loss of a commercial aircraft; as finding it will almost certainly be necessary to determine the true cause of the accident. What you probably haven’t heard of is a Quick Access Recorder (QAR).

While it’s the best known, the FDR is not the only type of recording device used in aviation. The QAR could be thought of as the non-emergency alternative to the FDR. While retrieving data from the FDR usually means the worst has happened, the QAR is specifically designed to facilitate easy and regular access to flight data for research and maintenance purposes. Its data is stored on removable media and since the QAR is not expected to survive the loss of the aircraft it isn’t physically hardened. In fact, modern aircraft often use consumer-grade technology such as Compact Flash cards and USB flash drives as storage media in their QAR.

Through the wonders of eBay, I recently acquired a vintage Penny & Giles D50761 Quick Access Recorder. This was pulled out of an aircraft which had been in service with the now defunct airline, Air Toulouse International. Let’s crack open this relatively obscure piece of equipment and see just what goes into the hardware that airlines trust to help ensure their multi-million dollar aircraft are operating in peak condition.

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IBM 1401 Runs FORTRAN II Once More

The IBM 1401 is undeniably a classic computer. One of IBM’s most “affordable” mainframes, it ruled the small business computing world of the 1960’s. Unfortunately, computers aren’t often thought of as treasured heirlooms, only a handful of these machines survive today. The computer history museum has two machines. One from Germany, and the other recovered from a basement in Connecticut back in 2008. [CuriousMarc] and the rest of the team at the museum have been working diligently to restore the 1401, and they’ve hit quite a milestone — They can now compile and run FORTRAN II code.

Getting the 1401 to run FORTRAN II itself is quite an accomplishment. The hardest part was dealing with the 729 vacuum column tape drives. The team spent years building a hardware emulator which takes the place of the real drives. The emulator is driven by an old PC running windows. Tape images are stored as files, which can be loaded, rewound, and run just like a real 729.

Emulators are great, but [Mark] and his team wanted this to run on the real hardware. They first had to re-create a FORTRAN compiler tape. They ran a tape copier program on the 1401, then loaded an image of the compiler on their emulator. The computer dutifully copied the image to a real tape drive.

The team also needed a punched card deck of FORTRAN source code to compile and run. The first example in the FORTRAN manual is a Hilbert Matrix program. The team could have used a keypunch machine to punch the cards for the program, but that is a painstaking and error-prone process. One mistake, and they would have to re-punch an entire card — much like using an old typewriter with no White-Out or correction ribbon. Instead, they typed the source into a PC, then converted the file to a tape image. A small program instructed the 1401 to punch the source code out on cards for them.

At the moment of truth, shown first in the video, the 1401 reads FORTRAN II from tape, pulls in the source code from punched cards, compiles, runs, and then prints the result on its line printer. All the original hardware singing along just like it did in 1959.

If you haven’t been to the Computer History Museum yet, check it out! It’s also the site of Vintage Computing Festival West.

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Commodore 1530 Datasette Gets A Digital Counter

Ah, the humble Commodore 1530 Datasette drive. It never enjoyed much popularity in the USA, but it was the standard for quite some time in Europe. [DerSchatten13] still uses and loves his 1530. When a co-worker showed him some 7-segment bubble LEDs, he knew what he had to do. Thus the 1530 digital counter (translated) was born.

[DerSchatten13] started out by building his design on a breadboard. He used every I/O pin on an ATtiny2313 to implement his circuit. Tape motion is detected by a home-made rotary encoder connected to the original mechanical counter’s belt drive. To keep the pin count down, [DerSchatten13] multiplexed the LEDs on the display.

Now came the hard part, tearing into the 1530 and removing the mechanical counter. [DerSchatten13] glued in some standoffs to hold the new PCB. After rebuilding the circuit on a piece of perfboard, he installed the new parts. The final result looks great on the inside. From the outside, one would be hard pressed to tell the digital counter wasn’t original equipment.

Operation of the digital counter is identical to the analog unit – with one exception. The clear button now serves double duty. Pressing and holding it saves the current count. Save mode is indicated by turning on the decimal point. If the user rewinds the tape, the counter will stop the motor when the saved count is reached. Cueing up that saved program just got a heck of a lot easier!

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