The word that Dell Computer will pull the plug on built-in floppy drives drew a howl from some in the support community. The response had nothing to do with good data-storage practices, like backing up or transferring files without benefit of a network. Instead, its a more fundamental reason: the boot sequence and reviving a dead drive.
In my previous column, I discussed the "death" of the floppy and looked at likely successors. However, some of you wondered about the enduring need for a boot floppy.
"I for one wouldnt consider buying a system without a floppy drive, or the ability to boot from one unless there is a widely recognized, widely used and viable substitute for floppy boot media," Richard Parkin wrote. He added that even bootable CDs require a boot image that is essentially a floppy disk, and disk tools require a floppy drive to create a bootable CD. While he found merit in USB memory keys, he was concerned that the devices provide no support for booting.
"Without the ability to insert an easily produced boot disk, my job would be seriously hampered," Parkin said. "Many of the tools I currently use for recovery and disk imaging absolutely require the ability to boot from a minimal OS on a boot floppy. Floppies also provides me with an alternative boot method should the CD be unreadable or if the [CD] drive is defunct. Ive had CD drives fail on me, but Ive never once had a 3.5-inch floppy drive go before the system itself became obsolete. And if one boot floppy is bad, creating a new one is usually a trivial process."
Storage administrator Manuel Pantoja agreed and described a similar situation when using a SCSI card for the internal disk or with an ATA RAID system. "What, no floppy drive? Then no internal disk to install Windows to. Game over. Someone needs to ask Mr. Gates why his install programs are stuck in the 20th Century."
Hey, maybe you just did. (Or perhaps one of his minions.)
On the other hand, manager Paul Renner was pleased to see the departure of the floppy drive. Along with the decline in the popularity of floppies, he has observed a decline in the quality of floppy drive mechanisms. He favors CDs.
"Ive begun to carry not only boot floppies, but also bootable CDs," Renner wrote. "Most of the machines I encounter today have a BIOS that allows me to quickly change the boot sequence of the machine (and many already look at A:, D:, then C:). Its a no-brainer to carry the CDs."
Renner hoped that BIOS manufacturers will come on board with native support for USB memory keys. He predicted the devices will be a hit with tech-support operatives. "It would truly be handy to be able to carry a USB boot key on my key ring. Even better would be multiple boot options that would be selectable by a physical switch on the device."
Memory-key makers would do well to consider supplying models with a selectable multi-boot option. In case anyone might think that tech support managers would be too narrow of a market niche, consider that WiebeTech this week announced a "forensic" version of its DriveDock FireWire bridge. The ATA-to-FireWire converter is write-blocked, permitting law-enforcement offers to read data from a drive without risk of writing data back. Now thats a vertical market!
Support mavens wanting to get a head start with USB memory keys might want to check out IBMs line with USB 2.0 connectors. Big Blues marketing copy said the devices support booting for "appropriate system BIOS and bootable files."
And perhaps its more than a bit unfair for us to blame BIOS and systemware manufacturers for their poor planning on USB keys and other such products, even though they are a tempting target. After all, the floppy drive has been a standard for several decades, so theres been no urgency for any change. Even now, almost all of Dells PCs will come with a floppy drive, as will most PCs shipped this year.
But the writings on the wall. Or maybe the boot block.
David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.