Using floppy disks as semaphore tokens

In the very early days of Windows 95, the distribution servers were not particularly powerful. The load of having the entire team installing the most recent build when it came out put undue strain on the server. The solution (until better hardware could be obtained) was to have a stack of floppy disks in the office of the "build shepherd". (The job of "Build Shepherd" was to perform the initial diagnosis of problems with the build itself or with verification testing and make sure the right developer is called in to address the problem.)

If you wanted to install the latest build, you had to go to the Build Shepherd's office and take one of the specially-marked floppy disks. When you finished installing, you returned the disk.

In other words, the floppy disk acted as a real-world semaphore token.

Comments (19)
  1. Smackfu says:

    Like a grade-school bathroom pass.

  2. Trey Van Riper says:

    Sounds like another fine use for the venerable AOL disks of old.

  3. Yuhong Bao says:

    How did you install Windows 95 (or Windows codenamed "Chicago") then? And what do you think of the screenshots of early builds of Windows 95?

  4. Steve Loughran says:

    Didnt the early exclusive-lock tokens originate on railways, where you really did need a key to get an exclusive lock on a bit of single track railway?

  5. Binsky says:

    Slightly unrelated for anyone else but me, but this post reminded me of the time when I used to build pc’s and called it work.

    Someone actually came to our business with this great stack of floppies (the very unfloppy 3.5" kind), asking if I could please reinstall Windows…From floppy! I was amazed that they even shipped Windows on such a wonderfully error-proof medium :p

    (Naturally I hooked up one of those new-fangled CD-ROM players, which seemed to be doing the job a lot quicker…)

  6. James Curran says:

    Now, did the floppy play any part in the actual downloading from the server, or was it just on the honor system ?

  7. DRM says:

    The floppy was a DRM system built on ‘trustworthy computing’. The trust in this case was based on that noone downloaded files from the server without the floppy at ones purposal.

  8. JenK says:

    Binsky: The good thing for me was that I was not a Win95 setup tester. The bad thing was that I was a Plus! setup tester, and under certain conditions Plus! setup interacted with Windows setup. And both came on CD and 3.5".

    So I had the periodic pleasure of installing Win95 from floppy so I could test the interaction between Plus! floppy setup & Win95 floppy setup.

  9. Brent Dax says:

    The origin of Perl’s patch pumpkins (basically, authority over changes to a particular part of the program) are based on a similar thing. Someone’s office had a single shared tape drive, and instead of using software to control who had access, they simply declared that you could only use the tape drive if you had a particular stuffed pumpkin at your desk. The guy mentioned it early in the development of Perl 5, and the name stuck.

  10. Jason T. Miller says:

    The authorization information for a third-party Web app we ran was stored in a text file. We had several operators who updated the file from time to time, and sometimes their updates happened to collide. After contemplating several rather heavy-handed solutions involving file locking and/or a server process to control access to the file (which seemed like overkill — we had about three operators and they probably each spent less than ten minutes a week editing this file), I settled on a large coaxial crimping tool that had fallen into disuse — before you edited the file, you had to obtain the tool. Problem solved. To give credit where it’s due, I believe the Perl pumpkin provided the inspiration for this solution.

  11. Vorn says:

    Manip: then the developers resolve the deadlock the old fashioned way. IN A STEEL CAGE!!!!!


  12. Claw says:

    diskcopy a: a:


  13. Manip says:

    But how did you ensure atomic locks? If developer A and developer B both take the disk at the same time …. wait… oh I see ;)

    (I have *WAY* too much free time)

  14. danielsn says:

    We did a similar thing at work using a dilbert doll. Managment approval of dilbert stuff appears, oddly enough, to be a sign of a non dilbert company :)

  15. Cheong says:

    So what if someone missed the disk? There’s always a backup or everyone just stand there working on the copy previously installed?

  16. Mike says:

    I just can’t help it. When anyone mentions floppy and Win95, I remember the betas where there was a bezier MDI demo (from an SDK, or MSDN I think) that ran smoothly with IIRC at least 16 windows on a 486, and the floppy speed. The floppy speed…

    It was so fast (especially having become used to NT 3.51’s "speed" of it), and actually multi-tasking (!), that we got stressed copying the floppies before I got my latest CD.

    I suspect different floppy controllers, and some obscure drives forced MS to slow down. I’ll likely never understand why they did it by busy-waiting in the driver, making the rest of the system all but unusable…

  17. Arlie Davis says:

    Many, many machine shops and assembly lines still use physical locks to shut down machines, so that the person working on them can prevent the machine from chewing them into bits. For example, electricians at Ford each have 4 locks, keyed to the person, that can be used to lock down up to 4 machines. More than one person can lock down a machine — the machine (or assembly line, or whatever) cannot run until all of the locks have been removed from it.

    At Ford specifically, they are used on assembly-line robots, which are ignorant of our soft, fleshy ways.

  18. Sylveste says:

    As Arlie Davis mentions – a standard part of an Electrician’s toolbox is his personal padlock that only that electrician has the key to. Standard procedure when working calls for shutting off the power, machinery, etc and then locking it with your own personal lock – for exactly the reason mentioned above. If you look at most domestic and all industrial fuseboxes, breakers, etc, you’ll see they normally have some sort of hasp that will accomodate a padlock.

  19. Mitheral says:

    <I>Someone actually came to our business with this great stack of floppies (the very unfloppy 3.5" kind), asking if I could please reinstall Windows…From floppy! I was amazed that they even shipped Windows on such a wonderfully error-proof medium :p</I>

    Pfft, Win95 was like what, 13 floppies. You haven’t been tortured by an install until you’ve installed Office 97 (45 floppies) on 30 odd machines. Not only was the count outrageous, the installer didn’t use them in order and you had to insert the same disk more than once.

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