New Windows Server will lead march to 64-bit OS

The launch of a new family of Windows server products this week will kick-start a broad shift among customers to 64-bit versions of Microsoft's server software, analysts and customers said.

Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer is due to launch two major product upgrades at an event Wednesday in Los Angeles -- the Windows Server 2008 operating system, which is due for release next week, and its SQL Server 2008 database, expected in the third quarter, following delays. He's also expected to discuss Visual Studio 2008, which shipped in November.

Like their predecessors, the new products will be offered in both 32- and 64-bit editions. But several factors this time will prompt more customers to choose the 64-bit versions, including the broad availability of 64-bit, x86-based server hardware and the trend toward consolidating and virtualizing server workloads to reduce power consumption and improve efficiency.

The shift will happen gradually, since most customers are not expected to deploy the products widely until next year. But it will mark a significant maturation for Microsoft's server products, which long were seen as an also-ran in the data center beside 64-bit Unix operating systems from companies such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. It should also mean better performance for Microsoft customers.

"This will absolutely tip the scales in terms of more 64-bit deployments moving forward," Gartner Inc. analyst John Enck said of the new products. The move will be driven by a desire among customers to get the most out of their 64-bit server hardware, he said, which means using a 64-bit operating system.

The difference lies in the amount of physical memory the software can address. A 32-bit OS can address only 4GB of main memory without having to use technology tricks that diminish performance gains. A 64-bit OS can address far more memory -- up to 2TB in the case of Windows Server 2008, according to Microsoft.

That will boost the performance of some applications, because they will be able to pull data quickly from main memory instead of having to retrieve it from disk, which is slower. The gains should be evident for databases and for Microsoft's Exchange Server, although line-of-business applications will see less benefit, Enck said.

Customers may also be driven to 64 bits by concerns about the future. Microsoft has said this will be the last big upgrade to Windows Server offered in both 32- and 64-bit editions, and some expect the same to be true for SQL Server. Exchange Server 2007, released in November, already is available only in 64 bits. Customers would be wise to start preparing now for a move that soon will be forced upon them anyway, analysts said.

Also propelling the move is the trend toward server consolidation. Virtualization allows multiple operating systems and application loads to run on a single physical machine; server virtualization requires the capacity of a powerful, 64-bit server.

"Anybody doing a deployment today would be foolish not to at least consider when and where a 64-bit OS would be a good fit," said Al Gillen, an analyst IDC. "It's really about future-proofing your IT environment -- giving yourself the ability to support the workloads that you'll have on these servers before they are retired in five years' time."

IDC has called the lack of adoption of 64-bit Windows Server "one of the biggest missed opportunities among today's customer base." It has noted that the 64-bit products will be priced the same as their 32-bit counterparts and argued that the transition is relatively easy for customers.

The 64-bit processors from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. have maintained the x86 architecture from the 32-bit world. That means 32-bit applications can still run on 64-bit servers and that "the majority of existing 32-bit applications will run aboard 64-bit Windows Server without modification and, most frequently, with improved performance," IDC said.

Customers will need to update low-level system tools such as security products, antivirus tools and some system-management products, which interact directly with the Windows Server kernel, IDC said.

At the end of 2007, the research firm estimates, only about 10% of Windows Server customers were using the 64-bit edition of Windows Server 2003. It expects that figure to approach 50% by the end of 2010, driven by Windows Server 2008. For new licenses sold in 2010, close to 75% will be for a 64-bit version of Windows Server, according to IDC.

Microsoft is keen to promote the transition to 64 bits. The technology will give its customers better performance and help the company catch up with the Unix world, where powerful -- but more expensive -- servers from Sun, IBM and HP have long been based on 64-bit operating systems. Microsoft believes that the products launching this week will mark "a big turning point" in the use of 64-bit Windows software, said Ward Ralston, a Microsoft senior technical product manager.

Microsoft also is pressuring independent software vendors to get their software 64-bit ready, after a lack of preparedness held back the transition following Windows Server 2003's release. Such vendors aren't required to have a native 64-bit edition of their software to receive a "Certified for Windows Server 2008" logo, but they will need to ensure that their software can run on the 64-bit OS.

Some expect Microsoft's virtualization technology, Hyper-V, to be a factor. The hypervisor will be offered free with the 64-bit edition of Windows Server 2008. Andrew Brust, head of new technology at the IT consulting company Twentysix New York, a Microsoft partner, said that once Hyper-V ships, it's "going to be huge. The virtualization space is ripe for some new competition."

Brian Randell, a senior consultant at another Microsoft partner, MCW Technologies in Los Angeles, said Hyper-V will be a major impetus for the move to 64 bits. "It demands that you have that kind of processor environment available," he said.

However, others pointed to Hyper-V's immaturity. It was originally planned to ship with Windows Server 2008 but has been delayed for up to six months. Even then it will be Microsoft's first attempt at virtualization, noted Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"I think there's too much emphasis on virtualization with this release," he said. Hyper-V may eventually play a significant role for Microsoft, but the company first needs to develop the required tools for managing a complex virtualized environment. After the hypervisor is released, Cherry said, Microsoft will also need to update its Virtual Machine Manager product.

Still, Cherry is upbeat about the new products, particularly Windows Server 2008. The redesign of the operating system to allow customers to install only the functions they need for particular tasks, or roles, will provide security and maintenance advantages, he said. He also pointed to the new Internet Information Server, which gives more options for running and controlling applications remotely, and a significant update to Terminal Services, which will make it easier to run line-of-business applications on a server and make them appear to the end user as if they were running locally.

Brust said the new server products are "rock-solid on 64-bit, and so too are the currently shipping versions of SQL Server, SharePoint and other server applications."

"When SQL Server 2008 ships, it will be the third version of the product to offer 64-bit support," Brust said. "Let's face it -- it's time to move off 32-bit."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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