on Wednesday 10 August 2011
in Commodore 64 > Hardware Information

The Rear Admiral

by Jeff J., Designer/Author of the Rear Admiral HyperDrive System released in 2010

[The Rear Admiral] ...is not a "cartridge" - It's a complete SCSI System Host Adaptor & Hard Drive with an incredibly powerful operating system. It's also the only product for 64/128 computers that provides simultaneous multiplexing of all data on the hard drive between multiple computers. The DOS provides so many features and operates in less time that in takes to blink your eyes. It also supports "real" Relative (and all other) format files and can run nearly anything in the very same way that any "real" CBM drive would. There is no need for emulation or fudging of code to make programs work. Performance-wise, it's about 20-120 times faster than any other 64/128 products ever devised. Additionally, with the advanced implementations of the DOS, it actually changes the computer into a near-Irix machine (but still speaking in CBM language) and without eating up resources in the computer. With the S.M.A.R.T. button, C64 programs can be instantly captured to the drive and loaded in less than 0.35 seconds, no matter what program it is. These captured archives are then immediately accessible throughout the "network" (if multiplexed) and can also be shared with Zip images since the system will allow Zip drive archiving. On a 128, it operates so quickly that there is no need for additional hardware hanging all over the computer.

There has truly never been anything like this system before, with the exception of the original LTK [Lt. Kernal hard drive]. That system has now been vastly improved upon and has re-emerged as the Rear Admiral HyperDrive.

You do not plug a Rear Admiral "into" a Commodore, rather you plug a Commodore "onto" a Rear Admiral, hence the slogan: "Every Commodore should answer to a Rear Admiral..."

The RA system began in mid 2009, as a very secret project. The electronics and DOS were completely developed by the end of 2009. Then, in early 2010, came the addition of Zip drive solutions and the AutoMUX. The system was completed in April, but there were issues with the Host Adaptor housings as to finding a U.S. manufacturer who could meet the specs. Once that was done and the housings arrived (in July), the systems could be built. The entire project was kept in near total secrecy until it was only days from retail release. The RA is 100% U.S. designed and painstakingly assembled by hand. All soldering is also done by hand, right here in Michigan.

The new Rear Admiral System is a continuation of the Xetec Lt. Kernal System. There are many long-term owners of LTKs that still use them on a daily basis. Those owners do not easily part with their LTKs and therefore availability for the units is sparse, at best. Originally, the creation of the Rear Admiral was just homage. Later, it became apparent that the original Xetec units could be upgraded to the advanced Rear Admiral logic by producing "drop-in" controllers for equivalent substitution. This allows the older Xetec Host Adaptors to be retained and used with RA DOS, while still supporting all of the vintage hardware as well, and thus led to the creation of the new AutoMUX Multiplexers. The entire RA System is also 100% backwards compatible with LK DOS, which provides archive retrieval/migration. Since the LTKs are still in operation, the arrival of the RA system might be quite timely.

Question - Your eBay post says it works with copy protected software... Like what? Can you take a factory disk and copy it so it will work? So it sounds like it is faster that a RamLink? That would be great if all the above is true.

All True.

Part 1: You can insert a copy-protected software disk, load the program, and when the point is reached where you are at the main level (or menu, or start), just press "S.M.A.R.T." and capture everything in the computer, reducing it to an instant load image.
[ S.M.A.R.T. = System Memory And Register Trapping ]

This does not "duplicate" the program to another disk; rather it images the operating program state to a distilled archive that will load again to that exact state in the blink of an eye. You may also adjust the S.M.A.R.T. capture features to allow precision captures of nearly all 64 programs. My personal archive contains more than 2000 captures and LLoyd Sponenburgh (LTK) has now created better than 6000 programs in his S.M.A.R.T. archives, and growing day by day. Soon, it is desired to have an entire C64 program biography (evolution) reduced to the S.M.A.R.T. instant load archiving format, all available for RA users.

(Disk Duplication (in most cases) can be done with FastCopy - Disk Duplicator Mode - F5 option from the FastCopy main menu. FastCopy automatically sends required 20x code to serial drives and unloads upon exit, returning any floppy drive to its normal state.)

Part 2: A CMD RamLink is neither a DOS nor a Disk Drive; it is a RAM expansion device, limited to the hardware onboard. It does not provide anything more than extended Random Access Memory, with larger space. Even when paired with a parallel interface cable and a CMD drive, the performance is only "enhanced iec serial" with emulation of CBM devices. This "emulation" falls short in many factors of true CBM compliance and causes many problems with programs. Other than a directory sorted storage lair, the CMD devices never got developed beyond rudimentary support. As for the Rear Admiral, all CBM support is fully available. With the RA, all of the work is done in the Host Adaptor, by swapping the entire programming and register space into (and out of) the Host Adaptor, before the computer knows what happened. The RA is, in a word, "Breathtaking" to see in action, since it would take your breath away upon seeing the speed it actually delivers without “SuperCPU” off-board assistance or other methods whereby the actual computer would be turned into a "dumb terminal" device. Unless you experience it, nothing more than a glorious myth would describe it. The RA DOS is the best part, exceeding the hardware, since it provides so many features that take the Commodore 64/128 into the true "programmer's realm" and beyond.

Rear Admiral performance is faster because it does all of the heavy-lifting for the computer within the Host Adaptor itself, allowing the computer to remain unhindered by required programming overheads placed on it when using RAM expansion devices (in any form). The Rear Admiral does not place any programming into the computer, the Host Adaptor does the work (as it should) without the computer ever noticing.

Evidence is in side-by-side benchmarking of the varying equipment. I still own several RamLink units as well as CMD Drives. All with parallel cable configurations. These devices are still appropriate for many uses and should not be discounted.

Question - So it sounds like it just takes a snapshot like the Super Snapshot or Action Replay? That would be a nice feature, but basically doesn't have any better compatibility than the CMD HD or RamLink because you can't load copy protected programs. What about those with custom loaders? I guess those would not work either? Either way, I am glad to see something new being produced in 2010. It would be nice to see a video of it in action!

It does in deed support copy-protected software. S.M.A.R.T. is unlike Super Snapshot, Action Replay, or anything else for that matter.

Here is a more detailed (yet condensed) overview of the technology:

[S.M.A.R.T. = System Memory And Register Trapping]

What does the little blue button really do?

1) The system is prepared by allocating a centralized capture repository file and then placing the necessary SMART code into the Host Adaptor's onboard "shadow" ram. The computer is then rebooted to a normal (non-RA) state. The Host Adaptor is now aware (transparently) and it waits for the S.M.A.R.T. button to be pressed. Now the user can load the target program (even copy-protected) from the original source (floppy) drive. At some point (user's discretion) when the program is loaded or running, the user presses the S.M.A.R.T. button to initiate the actual capture procedure. Once the button is pressed, the Host Adaptor "freezes" the entire computer - CPU activity, I/O, memory and all register states (as well as clock data), etc. At the same instant, all of the "frozen" information (system-wide) is buffered into the capture repository - a large REL "keyed access database" file with an indexed map of all captured information from the system. The system is then booted back to normal RA operation. The "image" file is available for instant access (via the SMART menu) and can be reverse applied (loaded back) into the system in about the same time it takes for the "ENTER" key to come back up from being pressed.

2) Since the system conditions change in a unique way for each individual program that is captured, the single repository is not the logical end of the capture process. The repository file is mapped large enough to handle the entire scope of the 64 yet, in most cases, very little of that entire scope is really changed. So, the SMART menu is the next step after capture. Adjustment "tweaks" (i.e.; user preferences) may be applied to the dynamic "playback" settings for the repository file. Once satisfied with the settings (defaults usually do the trick), the user may then create a permanent "archive" of the repository. This process will compare the "normal boot" state of the computer with the "target state" after capture. From this comparison, a vastly reduced map of the system necessary to load the captured program can be derived. That information is then placed in a new archival version of the repository (user named) and becomes the final capture image at a vastly reduced file size. The central repository file will now be used again for the next capture, in the same way it was previously, without needing to re-allocate. The SMART menu will also build autoloader front ends for any archive file. This makes it easier to load the archive by simply typing the name of the archive, instead of having to load it from the SMART menu each time.

3) The entire capture process requires approx. 1 second to perform. The "reload" process requires an approx. maximum of 350 milliseconds seconds.

A video? Not this month. Too many units to build. 

Question - Thank you for the detailed explanation. I look forward to seeing one in action sometime. Maybe I'll see you at a Commodore conference sometime?

You’re welcome, and correspondingly thanked for your questions.

Conference? That may be possible. I am currently involved in assisting a local (Detroit/Metro) area club (64/128/PET) in their revitalization efforts. They recently merged with another club (Amiga/Atari), causing change to their meeting place and schedules. I've had to wait for some of the dust to settle before jumping in. My goal is to provide a below-cost Rear Admiral System for their general equipment, which already includes some LTKs. However, I will need to recover a portion of my investments from the project before I can proceed.

You may be interested to know that I have somewhat more immediate plans to post additional information on the forum, and allow members to purchase Rear Admirals directly. This would (1) save money for member purchases and (2) generate funds for the forum, as I will be setting aside $10 from each unit sold (through a sponsored link) here for Lemon64.com.

Question - [Is it just copying the Lt. Kernal?]

I suppose it would be a nice job of "copying" had it been just a clone. However, the need for "just a clone" was nothing, as a goal. That lesson was learned (the hard way) many years ago after successfully "cloning" the CMD HD's interface logic. Although rather simplistic in design, it was still a laborious task to duplicate that device - the "cloning" of which has not been achieved elsewhere to this day. Upon first conception of the RA project, it seemed as if to be looking down the throat of a behemoth. The logic was so complex that it was amazing how they could fit so much into the 5C032 PLDs from that era. The project also required unorthodox methods (to be invented) in reverse engineering, just to get started. The CMD logic uses basic combinatorial methods, whereas the LTK uses both combinatorial and sequential logic, spanning two PLDs, with portions of the computer and other Host Adaptor components in between. After reverse engineering was finally completed, then came the task of improving upon the logic with "notions" dating back to the late 80's of my LTK experience. Eventually, the next version of the LTK emerged as the Rear Admiral HyperDrive. Now the floodgates are open for the batch of "surprises" to be discovered in the next release of RA DOS (7.4), that of which all registered owners will receive free of charge.

Complete owner's manuals are available to all registered RA users and accompanying documentation is sent with the product.

High-Quality detailed photography transmittal is currently suspended until an online-magazine finalizes a review of submitted information. This material also includes historical/retrospective data pertaining to the original LTK, as well as associated photography. There are delays pending this review due to minor language translations for international publication.