DOS is a beautiful thing

One of our engineers was recently attempting to update a customized software support file (with my blessings, by the way), and for a reason I didn't really care to look into at the time, he was being denied access and couldn't overwrite the existing file. (Some Vista security measure, I'm sure, but I had better things to do than to look into it right then and there.) He was trying all the typical Windows procedures, including drag and drop, cut and paste, right-click and send to, saving to a new location from within the file itself, etc., but regardless of what he tried, he was being denied the ability to overwrite this file - even though he had all the proper rights and privileges to do so.

After watching a couple of his attempts, including verifying a read only attribute wasn't turned on, I sat down at his computer, opened up a command prompt window, and ran the old DOS xcopy command, complete with the switches to ignore any error, suppress any prompts, and overwrite read-only files and/or older files:

xcopy filename.ext C:\Destination\filename.ext/d/c/r/y.

In reality, however, since DOS commands don't play nice with spaces, I actually entered the path in its truncated form:

xcopy filename.ext C:\Destin~1\filename.ext/d/c/r/y

And beforehand, I had to refresh my memory on the correct switches ( xcopy /? ), not to mention a couple of change directory commands, all of which just added to the apparent mystery of what I was doing as he watched with great interest. (I later remembered about the use of quotation marks to overcome the spaces in the file and path names.) In about a minute, however, the file was copied to its correct location, and the older file was overwritten. How'd you do that, he asked. DOS is a beautiful thing, I replied. DOS? I thought that was long gone, he said, and acknowledged that he knew nothing about it.

There have been quite a number of generations of computer users since those old DOS days (generations in computer terms, that is), and I would guess that there are more users today who don't know the first thing about DOS commands than those who do. I still use DOS in my environment, including having two old DOS machines still running vital functions. I have one DOS machine providing the computing power for our telephone voice mail system, and another, believe it or not, is actually used for all the company billing functions. Both are still in place because of the cost and headaches associated with updating those two functions - and there's no reason to update them since they're working just fine.

I've also been using DOS commands written into simple batch files which are scheduled to backup data from one drive to another, to map users' network drives, and for various other scripts defined on my server. And how often do we rely on various DOS commands for our network troubleshooting efforts? Ping , or perhaps ipconfig, might be the most common of them all. I still have a couple of MS DOS books on my shelf, and neither one has yet to gather too much dust. While knowing and using DOS used to be a staple of computing, it's quickly becoming a lost art. And I'll even admit that I've forgotten a heck of a lot more about DOS than I still remember.

In many ways, I almost prefer the days of DOS, when the command line ruled, when a window was opened to get fresh air into the room, and when 64K of RAM was enough memory for anybody (something Bill Gates is often taken out of context for saying). Performing maintenance and repairs was often easier as well. On the aforementioned DOS computer that powers our phone voice mail system, for example, I was recently faced with a motherboard and processor failure (due to a processor fan that failed and went unnoticed). All I had to do was to retrieve an old DOS computer that had found a home stashed under a counter - a Pentium MMx, 233MHz, 128MB RAM, 1GB hard drive, and a Trident ISA video card - swap hard drives, install the telephone expansion cards, and it was good to go. (Making sure it had a good working processor fan, of course.) Compared to swapping hard drives between any two Windows computers, there were really no hoops to jump through or configuration settings to change.

I still have a few more of those old DOS computers around here, and I'll keep them as long as I have two others performing critical functions, maybe even longer. And I still look at those old DOS books on occasion, if for nothing else, to keep them from getting too dusty and my DOS skills from getting too rusty.