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 PostPost subject: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 4:59 pm 
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I was yet again sitting here masterminding the next innovation in the "huge storage server for mortals" (5th edition by now :)) discovering yet another troublesome limitation that will of course haunt my dreams for the next months to come:

Drive letters!

I do not know what overpaid wannabe-genius at Microsoft came up with this idiotic idea to tie every volume in the computer to a fixed one letter ID. Even during the same period when MS-DOS was coming into shape other OS programmers and platforms had a much more innovative ideas to get over an obvious obstacle like this. But for some reason this "genius" shoved the alternative ideas onto a shelf in his office, laid back in his comfy leather chair and closed his eyes, dreaming away about spring, summer vacations, bikini girls and hot cars...

And the paper with the competitors solutions on identifying storage volumes? Never to see the day of light again...


Fast-forwarding to present time... I am sitting on my floor, cables running all over me, in one hand I hold a PSU, in the other hand I am balancing four 1TB harddrives. I am painfully aware that if I move, sneeze, get an annoying itch or otherwise do anything else than sit still I will doom four expensive harddrives (filled with data) to a most painful death, I will most likely pull the PSU from the server, with it even more harddrives and the entire server will most likely output one of more white puffs and never make a sound again. I am trying to reconnect some of the harddrives, after my recovery I've managed to put together much of the data into larger harddrives. A few harddrives in the server has become "obsolete" so I am removing them to free up space, lower the noise, power output and in the end free up enough stuff so I can start removing some of the redundant cabling and hardware. Once my server proudly managed up to 40 harddrives in massive RAID arrays, 4 1500W power supplies and miles of cables. But after first one massive failure when RAID arrays at random would disconnect (with data loss as result) and now the second failure when Windows decided that all my data was redundant (new anti-piracy feature perhaps?) I've decided that big and bold is not the way to go. I've removed all the RAID arrays (all except one which I can not recover at this time) and now I have mirrored all my data manually to external harddrives. For each harddrive there is a secondary harddrive of equal size with equal data contents.

That remaining RAID array is a reminding proof that RAID is not that safe and secure it touts to be. I got two fairly expensive RAID controllers in my server, both are graded enterprise class and comes with drivers for operating systems ranging from Windows NT 4.0 to Solaris, Linux and Mac OS X Server. One day the array went offline, and I thought that one of the harddrives has failed. I had a spare harddrive sitting around so normally I would identify the error, replace the drive, wait for RAID rebuild and that's it. But not this time. Everytime I re-enabled the array one of the four harddrives would randomly go offline with an glass-shaking alarm to follow. The same harddrive would not fail every time, but sometimes an another drive would go offline. Sometimes two drives would go offline. After a day or two I gave up, disconnected all harddrives and let them be until I could come up with a recovery plan. This prompted my decision to remove all RAID arrays and rely on regular and manual backups. It's been said several times already,

RAID is not the same as backup! Once your data is corrupted, destroyed or deleted it will be gone! RAID is for redundancy only!.

So here I am now, rewiring my harddrives so I can keep a set of "Data"-harddrives in the server, and their mirrored counterparts ("Backup"-harddrives) offline, only to be connected when updating the contents. At the same time I am creating a small document mapping every harddrive I have to a drive letter. Since I use junction links (unofficial feature in Win2k NTFS and later) to link a drive to a folder I have to map out everything before hand so I don't have to reconfigure the junctions every time I reboot the server or swap out hardware. The junction links make it easier to create a unified folder structure no matter what harddrives I got in the system. In essence I create a "virtual file system" where all my harddrives are linked to making it easier for all my other apps to access all my data. If I for example swap out a drive all I need to do is reconnect the junction without the need to alter settings in my FTP server, web server, folder shares etc, all the resources that are connected to my harddrives. It's a bit like using the Disk Manager to link a drive to a folder on the drive. Only difference is that the junctions doesn't restrict me with choosing either a folder or drive letter, and it allows me to link any folder to any folder, root folder or otherwise.

But since I got so many harddrives I need to map out everything so I can "link" everything properly later on. C:, D: and Z: are all reserved (system, optical and system backup drive), but the rest are free to be allocated. So I start making a list of all present and future harddrives I need to connect... my video harddrives... music... warez (yes I got them too, big whoop)... FTP drives.. temp volumes.... ...

All of a sudden I notice that I am out of drive letters! Once again my mind is automatically coming up with creative ways of leveling Microsoft HQ and I squeeze out a curse or two... fortunately enough my more "positively creative" thoughts take over and my gears starts to turn on how to solve this dilemma. I got x amount of harddrives, and y amount of drive letters. To fit all harddrives including the space for 2-3 backup harddrives y ends up to be less than x. Too many harddrives or too few letters in the alphabet.

After a quick glance at the calendar I start to wonder why Microsoft has not yet in the year 2009, abolished this horrible way of addressing storage media. Why can't I call my harddrive something else? In linux you can mount a volume as anything you want, as \haha_microsoft or \my_lousy_divx_rips. On Mac OS X you can name your volume as anything you want, the OS refers to the same kind of mount point as in Linux, assigned during initialization, and each file is refered to by an internal file index, so technically even if you rename the file an associated application can find it, even by its new name. Even on an ancient and now dead OS such as Workbench (from now on referred to as AmigaOS) you could add whatever name to a volume, such as "My Cool Amiga Drive:". And every app would refer to "My Cool Amiga Drive:" when needed. Unfortunately if you changed that name apps would fail to find the file, a problem not present with Mac OS.

So essentially every modern OS today has a solution that allows you to connect virtually infinite volumes in any structure and destination you want. Except for Windows which is the absolutely dominant OS today. Uhm :? .

Some would say it's because of backwards compatibility. Well, I don't mind my Windows to be able to access old DOS apps by it's original volume ID (C: or whatever), but Windows itself should not be stuck on using them. Windows should refer to its own system drive by it's unique storage ID just like AmigaOS, or a mount point like Mac OS X and Linux does. Mac OS doesn't care what the volume is called, it only cares about the mount point it got (which on my Macbook Pro is "\" on drive disk0s2). Regardless of what I name the volume the mount point remains the same. And I can refer to the "drive" by its mount point or volume name.

Same goes for the files really, even if it's not that much of a problem. Each file should be referred to by its file index number and not file name. NTFS does use file indexes which remains the same for as long as the file exists, so why not use that? That alone would allow me to move files, rename files to whatever I want without Windows being affected. Every installed application would build an internal database of the indexes of its own files and refer to them.

But noo, Microsoft still needs a one letter drive designation, and if you change it for any active applications they will fail... Not only does Microsoft cling to an old and antiquated file system, they also keep this old drive letter system. Yes, with Windows Vista Microsoft started to use junction points in the file system (check out your user folder and you'll see what I mean, it's a MESS!), but these junction points has to be used on a device level as well. I want to be able to designate my backup drive as "Backup:" and my system drive as "Windows:". I want to be able to rely on that if I connect a portable drive it always gets the name I gave it the last time it was connected. If there would be two drives with the same name both should be shown without any fuss. If Apple managed to do this then why can't Microsoft?

They are lazy if you ask me. They never address issues until enough people (especially those with money) has complained or until some major disaster has happened that forces them to change their old ways. 64bit addressing is one example. Having a firewall included and enabled by default is an another. The list can be made very long...

Don't get me wrong, I like Windows and with Windows 7 I'll like it even more (I don't mind Vista at all, it just doesn't bring me anything that I really need at this point). But these limitations has to go. Now!

So, back to my problem... one thing that complicates things even further is that I use active encryption on all my harddrives. Ordinarily I could use Disk Manager to assign the drive to a folder, but since I use active encryption (TrueCrypt) it won't work. TrueCrypt will not allow me to assign a volume to a folder, only to a drive letter. If I ran Linux this wouldn't be any problem since Linux can mount volumes anywhere regardless, but in Windows you got drive letters or folders. When using TrueCrypt with full drive encryption Disk Manager reports the drive as uninitialized (do not initialize it, you will lose the encrypted volume!) so no drive letter is assigned, this is done by TrueCrypt during mount.

So I am stuck with drive letters... or am I?

I've discovered a few solutions that could help me, question is if it's worth the trouble. I would go around the limitations in Windows by actually using a Windows tool, but I don't know how that would affect the integrity of the encrypted volume. One drawback with encrypted volumes is that no recovery app whatsoever will be able to recover anything if the volume fails (that's why I need manual backup to a secondary drive!).

So, my solution is simply by remapping the drives by using a script. This is how it basically would work:

  1. Mount encrypted volume #1, volume is mounted manually using command line version of TrueCrypt to a drive letter, say X:
  2. Use the Windows command mountvol to mount the volume to a folder in my "virtual file system" I designed
  3. Dismount the drive letter X: from the volume keeping only the folder mount intact.
  4. Repeat for volume #2 and forward

Password for each encrypted volume could be asked at mount point, or asked before the first mount if I got the same password on all volumes. This would prevent any security risks by storing the password in a script file.

So, any problems with this approach? Perhaps. Since each volume is mounted through a folder instead of the originating drive letter, what would happen if TrueCrypt had to dismount the volume? (such as during system shutdown or manual volume disconnection).
Does TrueCrypt follow Microsoft's example by referring to each drive by its drive letter or does it actually use the volume ID*?
Do I have to mount the volumes as removable devices (thus forcing Windows to not create the "Recycle" and "System Volume Information" which are security risks if they are unencrypted due to the folder mount, since these folders are stored at the "drive root", which in this case would be the drive where my "virtual file system" is located, and not the encrypted volume!).
How would the free space be reported? If Windows was smart (hah!) it would report the free space of a folder-mounted harddrive if you browse to the "folder", but it's not sure it does that.
How would TrueCrypt handle data transfer exceptions if it's mounted as a folder? Would the mount become invalid thus giving me an error message, or would the computer keep saving data but not in the encrypted volume but instead in the "virtual file system" area?

Lots of worries here if you ask me...

For now I got enough drive letters since I don't have enough harddrive bays to connect all my harddrives to the server. But I will have to experiment and create virtual file systems, encrypted volumes and try to mount them to a folder. Then load and save lots of data and see if any issues arises. If Microsoft had referred its storage volumes by a mount point instead none of this would have been a problem.

For those of you that has some question regarding my "virtual file system" and the actual volume ID each drive gets, here is a small explanation:

As for the *volume ID, if you run mountvol you'll see each drive by its unique GUID ID and the mount point. One example, my C: :

Code:
 \\?\Volume{fb9e11ee-e213-11dc-9e73-806d6172696f}\
     C:\


That long string followed after Volume is called a GUID, some another horrible idea some over-caffeinated moron at Microsoft came up with. Every object and hardware device in Windows has such ID. It's great that they use some kind of ID, but they could have made it shorter and more manageable. But what the mountvol output says simply is that "volume{garble-garble} is mounted to C:". Same output is shown for any encrypted volumes I got, and every storage device you connect to your system gets an unique ID. You can change the mount point to a different drive letter or even a folder, which is what Disk Manager does with a pretty UI. Using mountvol I can record each ID of all my harddrives and then construct a script that mounts and remounts my drives.

My "virtual file system" is essentially a bunch of folders. Instead of sharing each drive I got on the network (leaving me with tons and tons of shares to manage) I can share the root of this "virtual file system". Here's an example:

Code:
Z:\Virtual File System
|-Stuff
| |-Music
| |-Videos
| |-Fun Stuff
|-Stuff (FTP)
| |-The Beta Group
| |-Personal
|-Stuff (Private)
| |-Private betas


etc etc. Doesn't look any special right? The trick here is that each of these folders are linked to a drive. Music is linked to one harddrive, Videos to an another. Private betas to a third, and the FTP stuff to a fourth etc. And all of these are linked using the junction feature NTFS supports that I wrote about before. So instead of managing tons of network shares all I have to do is share the Z:\Virtual File System (Z: is my mirrored backup drive on the server, a drive never removed or renamed) and then I can access ALL my harddrives from one single mount point. But I need to mount the drives to the proper folders of course.

So I got a lot of experimenting to do...

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I am reserving the right to be unclear, confusing and otherwise annoying in my blogs :) .

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 5:57 pm 
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You could use compmgmt.msc / disk management to mount drives to empty folders .. wait, you've already done that ..

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:05 pm 
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:P

As I already wrote, the Disk Management console doesn't recognize the drives as usable. They are even uninitialized and contain no file system at all (RAW) (which was the purpose of full drive encryption, to hide the info). And since no volumes can be found no drive letter can be assigned to them.

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:09 pm 
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Driver letter is only for the win32 subsystem.
Native application use \\.\letter: which is a symbolic link to \\.\Volume{}.

Truecrypt doesn't support mounted folder (as called in msdn).

Are you reading to patch Truecrypt ?


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:21 pm 
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thenico wrote:
Driver letter is only for the win32 subsystem.
Native application use \\.\letter: which is a symbolic link to \\.\Volume{}.


I remember When I was 5 years old, The old DOS Prompt. I'm 16 today, And I still use MS-DOS in the Virtual Machine. The only way you were able to goto the drive was infact the drive letter. MS-DOS was and still is the native application in windows today. thenico, If you haven't, use MS-DOS 1.0 or higher and they use Drive letters. Drive Letters aren't only for the win 32 subsystem, it's also for DOS. :) .

P.S. Let me know if I'm wrong.

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:33 pm 
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Blizzardo1 wrote:
thenico wrote:
Driver letter is only for the win32 subsystem.
Native application use \\.\letter: which is a symbolic link to \\.\Volume{}.


I remember When I was 5 years old, The old DOS Prompt. I'm 16 today, And I still use MS-DOS in the Virtual Machine. The only way you were able to goto the drive was infact the drive letter. MS-DOS was and still is the native application in windows today. thenico, If you haven't, use MS-DOS 1.0 or higher and they use Drive letters. Drive Letters aren't only for the win 32 subsystem, it's also for DOS. :) .

P.S. Let me know if I'm wrong.

Not completely wrong, but in modern versions of Windows (XP, Vista, 7, Server 2003, and Server 2008), MS-DOS isn't included in any way, shape, or form. It's based on the NT kernel, not the DOS kernel.


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:34 pm 
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thenico wrote:
Driver letter is only for the win32 subsystem.
Native application use \\.\letter: which is a symbolic link to \\.\Volume{}.

Truecrypt doesn't support mounted folder (as called in msdn).

Are you reading to patch Truecrypt ?


Native applications may use \\.\letter:, but is still limited by the drive letters.
And I am not going to patch truecrypt, I might go with the mountvol command. I have yet to test it.

Blizzardo1 wrote:
MS-DOS was and still is the native application in windows today. thenico, If you haven't, use MS-DOS 1.0 or higher and they use Drive letters. Drive Letters aren't only for the win 32 subsystem, it's also for DOS. :) .

P.S. Let me know if I'm wrong.


Uh, MS-DOS is not the native application in Windows anymore. It was during Windows 1.x through Windows Me. Windows NT and newer doesn't use DOS as basis. And yes, drive letters are for DOS as well, but since I run an OS newer than Windows ME drive letters are, as thenico pointed out, also used for the win32 subsystem.

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:37 pm 
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The MSDOS emulation under Windows NT is an win32 application (ntvdm.exe + some things in csrss.exe).
Search MS-DOS Environment in this document if you don't trust me.


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:38 pm 
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mrpijey wrote:
thenico wrote:
Driver letter is only for the win32 subsystem.
Native application use \\.\letter: which is a symbolic link to \\.\Volume{}.

Truecrypt doesn't support mounted folder (as called in msdn).

Are you reading to patch Truecrypt ?


Native applications may use \\.\letter:, but is still limited by the drive letters.
And I am not going to patch truecrypt, I might go with the mountvol command. I have yet to test it.

Blizzardo1 wrote:
MS-DOS was and still is the native application in windows today. thenico, If you haven't, use MS-DOS 1.0 or higher and they use Drive letters. Drive Letters aren't only for the win 32 subsystem, it's also for DOS. :) .

P.S. Let me know if I'm wrong.


Uh, MS-DOS is not the native application in Windows anymore. It was during Windows 1.x through Windows Me. Windows NT and newer doesn't use DOS as basis. And yes, drive letters are for DOS as well, but since I run an OS newer than Windows ME drive letters are, as thenico pointed out, also used for the win32 subsystem.


I would have to agree with this comment. When Windows NT Came out, Microsoft said, "Don't use the MS-DOS Executive any more, We will have the command.com, but also have the new cmd.exe."

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:44 pm 
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mrpijey wrote:
thenico wrote:
Driver letter is only for the win32 subsystem.
Native application use \\.\letter: which is a symbolic link to \\.\Volume{}.

Truecrypt doesn't support mounted folder (as called in msdn).

Are you reading to patch Truecrypt ?


Native applications may use \\.\letter:, but is still limited by the drive letters.



It is really just a symbolic link:
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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:51 pm 
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thenico, you're right. It is just a symbollic link to whatever drive you want to access. Like in Mac OS X, the link to the drive is /volumes/"Drive Name" and in linux is /media/"Drive Name" for windows is \Device\"Drive Type"

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:58 pm 
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Yes of course it's a symbolic link, just as mountvol outputs as well. But the argument I made was not about if it's symbolic or not (all of them are symbolic since the harddrive itself doesn't know what file system it uses or how the OS addresses it), but it was about why Microsoft uses fixed one letter volume ID:s. You are forced to give the harddrive a x: designation instead of Windows using (using your screenshot as example), \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1\Windows or \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1\Program Files to access its files. Then i could simply mount \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1 as System:. Without it would affect Windows or any other apps.

But that's not the case, all applications and even Windows itself (just check registry) addresses file by C:, D: or whatever your system or applications reside on. Never by its device ID.

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 8:36 pm 
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If I were Gates, I would use the device ID like on the other OS'S. It would be easier for the person who never even touched a windows pc.

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 8:50 pm 
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Gates screwed up with dos it was buggy as hell. If only they had changed to non drive letters with the release of vista or NT 3.1 or OS/2.

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Tue Apr 21, 2009 9:58 pm 
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On the other hand, we could use ARC paths.

BTW, isn't \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1 a symlink to ArcPath?


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Wed Apr 22, 2009 11:51 am 
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Windows OCManage wrote:
BTW, isn't \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1 a symlink to ArcPath?

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It isn't on my computer.


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Wed Apr 22, 2009 11:52 am 
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I think it's probably to do with making Windows easy to use. I mean, say you didn't know a lot about computers and you phoned tech support to ask how to install a program. Currently, they'd say goto C:\program\setup.exe. That wouldn't be too difficult. Imagine the confusion in a new user when tech support asks you to go to \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1\program\setup.exe or whatever.

I think a way to get around the drive letter limit is to use numbers, like this:

0:\
1:\
2:\
3:\


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Wed Apr 22, 2009 11:56 am 
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Or they could do what Excel does with columns, AA, AB, AC, AD... etc. Just as effective while keeping letters at the same time. I guess there are many solutions to the problem, but none are easily implementable because Microsoft made is so darn difficult/impossible to do so.

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Wed Apr 22, 2009 12:19 pm 
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WeirdEars wrote:
I think it's probably to do with making Windows easy to use. I mean, say you didn't know a lot about computers and you phoned tech support to ask how to install a program. Currently, they'd say goto C:\program\setup.exe. That wouldn't be too difficult. Imagine the confusion in a new user when tech support asks you to go to \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1\program\setup.exe or whatever.

I think a way to get around the drive letter limit is to use numbers, like this:

0:\
1:\
2:\
3:\


There's nothing wrong with making it simple. As you say, \\.\Device\HarddiskVolume1\Program\Setup.exe would be messy, but at least Microsoft could allow you to use something else. OK, Microsoft decides that the default name for the system drive is C:. But someone else might want to use System:, Windows:, Vista: or whatever. No limits, no problems. Instead we got a stone age limitation cut in stone so deep that Microsoft can't get rid of it without breaking compatibility with just about every piece of Windows software known to exist...

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Wed Apr 22, 2009 3:26 pm 
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This is so true mrpijey, Everything relies on the simple drive letter C:

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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Thu Apr 23, 2009 2:13 am 
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Except pen drive apps [/nag] ;)

I always thought if you ran out it would be a but now I think Microsoft is even stupider. It would be nice if they could would switch over to another system but I know they wont :/


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Thu Apr 23, 2009 3:36 pm 
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Drive letters are a result of DOS "compatibility" with CP/M (QDOS was written to run as a cheap CP/M compatible alternative).

The only thing to blame Microsoft for is holding on to the paradigm for so long.


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Sun May 10, 2009 8:50 am 
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One should not under-rate drive letters: they are an advance on the linux single-partition model (eg copy c:* f:)

Under modern DOS based OSes ye can mount volumes (even removable ones) onto empty directories. This is good, if ye have many partitions that are ordinarily out of use (eg multi-boot drives). eg s:\1381, s:\2195, s:\2600 etc. But each drive becomes a separate unix-style root.

It's not the nature of drives per se that is the worry, but rather that ye can never set the windows boot disks in advance, and that it is relatively easy to boot into windows from a different partition (eg windows NT boot loader diskette).

You can not set consistently, the drives that things like USBs and other devices might be plugged into. For example, several usb devices might interfere with letters ye would rather reserve for intermittent networking devices (transfer files from a sometimes networked laptop), or virtual drives created by programs like vcdrom, file-system drivers, or even SUBST. (i use subst to build the indexing of my cdroms, by indexing them as DOS drives).


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Fri Jan 15, 2010 8:11 pm 
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Derf wrote:
Blizzardo1 wrote:
thenico wrote:
Driver letter is only for the win32 subsystem.
Native application use \\.\letter: which is a symbolic link to \\.\Volume{}.


I remember When I was 5 years old, The old DOS Prompt. I'm 16 today, And I still use MS-DOS in the Virtual Machine. The only way you were able to goto the drive was infact the drive letter. MS-DOS was and still is the native application in windows today. thenico, If you haven't, use MS-DOS 1.0 or higher and they use Drive letters. Drive Letters aren't only for the win 32 subsystem, it's also for DOS. :) .

P.S. Let me know if I'm wrong.

Not completely wrong, but in modern versions of Windows (XP, Vista, 7, Server 2003, and Server 2008), MS-DOS isn't included in any way, shape, or form. It's based on the NT kernel, not the DOS kernel.


True. Probably kept for compatibility. You'd think someone would have thought of something by now.


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 PostPost subject: Re: The woes of drive letters...        Posted: Fri Jan 15, 2010 8:13 pm 
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We ever heard of looking at the date of the last post?

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