Fast, or Floppy?

In 1999, I had a DEC Celebris mini-tower for my desktop PC at UUNET. It had a Pentium Pro 200 MHz CPU, which was top of the line when the PC was purchased in 1996. But after several years, it had been far surpassed by newer PCs. PC hardware was advancing rapidly and the useful life of a PC was 3-4 years before it was obsolete.

catapult DEC PC under Dave's desk

I was managing a group of web hosting developers, but I didn’t have the budget for buying new desktop PCs. My biggest problem with my PC was that it was too slow to play MP3 files while doing anything else, and those were all the rage then. One of my co-workers had discovered Napster.

Then I learned about a CPU upgrade that adapted a Pentium II-based Celeron CPU to a Pentium Pro socket: a PowerLeap PL-PRO/II at 667 MHz, more than doubling the CPU power. I ordered a couple. A week later, they arrived at the office.

The Celebris parts weren’t fully interchangeable with ATX PCs. The CPU was on a horizontal daughterboard and the screws and plugs and I/O plates were all a little different from the standard. But the upgrade CPU fit. Except… it had a big heat sink and cooling fan that needed to be right where the floppy drive was on the Celebris. On a standard ATX PC the CPU wouldn’t have had a clearance problem.

This was before USB and CD burners became widespread, so we actually used the floppy drives. I had a choice to make: fast, or floppy? I removed the floppy drive. I didn’t have a blank cover for the hole left by the floppy drive, so it became a large ugly air intake. That’s a price I was willing to pay. My PC was useful again! And I didn’t have to reinstall or debug any software! If I ever needed the floppy drive to reinstall an OS, I could open the case door and hang it off the ribbon cable temporarily.

I installed the other upgrade CPU in a rack-mounted Celebris that needed more speed. In the next fiscal year, we bought some new Pentium III PCs, and we got spare Sun workstations running Solaris to augment them, but my upgraded DEC Celebris got me through a tight budget with only a little hassle. I’ve always hated to waste things that could still be useful. More than a decade later, I threw out my floppy disks and removed the last floppy drive from one of my PCs.


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