The 64-bit Evolution

Companies are in no hurry to switch to 64-bit computing, as they look for apps that work in the new environment.

Eric Foote is considering 64-bit Windows servers for his growing base of 4,500 users. But he's in no big rush to make the shift from 32-bit computing. His first target application is Presentation Server 4.0 from Citrix Systems Inc., thin-client software that performs most application processing on the server, sending only changes in the user interface to the client's PC. "With the 64-bit technology, it looks like we can get 30% to 40%

more users per server," says Foote, leader of both the Intel server and security groups at Detroit Medical Center.

"That helps keep our costs down from an infrastructure standpoint and a [software] licensing standpoint," he says, noting that his user base grows 20% each year.

Before moving to 64-bit, though, Foote is waiting for his hardware vendor, Hewlett-Packard Co., to release 64-bit blade servers at the right price and for his clinical information system -- Cerner Millennium from Cerner Corp. -- to be ported to 64-bit Windows. He's also waiting to see if older 32-bit applications will run as promised under 64-bit Windows and whether he'll have all the drivers he needs for his 64-bit environment.

Like Foote, many IT managers are adopting 64-bit Windows servers only for memory-starved applications such as thin-client software, large databases and some Web servers. For other uses, they're waiting for more 64-bit applications and for the 64-bit version of Microsoft Corp.'s Vista server software, which is slated for release in 2007.

Evolution, Not Revolution

A 64-bit processor and software written for it (such as the operating system and applications) can process more data and can use larger amounts of memory than a 32-bit environment. Of those two improvements, the more important by far is the ability of 64-bit operating systems and processors to access as much as 16TB of memory, compared with 4GB for 32-bit Windows. While 64-bit servers based on proprietary microprocessors and operating systems have long run high-end transaction-processing and scientific applications, 64-bit computing has come slowly to Windows- and x86-compatible microprocessors.

It has been a year since Microsoft released Windows Server 2003 x64 Edition and three years since Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (followed by Intel Corp.) unveiled mainstream 64-bit x86-compatible microprocessors. But most IT managers responsible for mainstream business applications are moving cautiously to 64-bit Wintel platforms.

"The impact of 64-bit computing from [Intel and AMD's mainstream 64-bit processors] will be gradual at best," according to a September 2005 report from IDC in Framingham, Mass. Because the processors can run many 32-bit applications without modification, the report said, "customers can phase in 64-bit hardware now but adopt 64-bit at the software level when it makes the most sense."

The report predicts that the installed base of 64-bit Windows server operating systems will grow from 1.3 million worldwide in 2006 to 10.5 million in 2009 but notes that "the pivot point for x86 64-bit adoption comes as products based on the Vista code base enter mainstream availability." Even John Borozan, group product manager for the Windows Server group at Microsoft, acknowledges that "it's probably two to three years before [64-bit Windows] becomes a mainstream choice."

Microsoft has tried to jump-start the 64-bit software market, promising both 32- and 64-bit versions of the Vista operating system. It has also released 64-bit versions of popular software, most notably its SQL Server 2005 database.

SQL Server is a particularly good candidate for gains under 64-bit, says John Enck, an analyst at Gartner Inc., with price/performance benefits so impressive "they could challenge SQL Server running on Intel Itanium for some database implementations."

With an estimated 50% of its Presentation Manager customers running into memory bottlenecks, Citrix has included both 32- and 64-bit support in its Presentation Server 4.0. Sumit Dhawan, director of product management, estimates that 10% to 20% of Citrix's customers are evaluating 64-bit operating systems and that as many 80% of new customers are considering them.

The Koehler Group, a paper manufacturer in Oberkirch, Germany, has already seen the benefits of running its SAP R/3 manufacturing software and Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 in a 64-bit environment. The move in October 2003 cut database response time in half, from about 400msec per transaction to less than 200msec per transaction, says Karl Haas, director of Koehler's SAP Competency Center.

Its system of choice is an HP server based on Intel's Itanium, a RISC-based processor significantly more expensive than the more recent AMD and Intel 64-bit offerings. But since October 2005, Koehler has ordered only servers based on the less expensive x86 processors, which it is considering as a platform for SQL Server 2005. If the applications a customer needs are ready for 64-bit, says Haas, "there is no reason not to" upgrade, since the hardware costs no more than its 32-bit counterpart.

Another application that can benefit from 64-bit technology is data extraction, transform and loading - taking very large amounts of data from one database, ensuring its accuracy and integrity, and loading it into another database. Healthways Inc., a Nashville-based health care management firm, runs its multiterabyte Oracle data warehouse of patient information on an HP Itanium-based server, says Bert Chaffin, senior director of application development.

To move data from its claims utilization and pharmacy system into its analytical data warehouse, Healthways had run Informatica Corp.'s PowerCenter 5.2 on a Windows NT Server with four 32-bit processors and 3GB of memory. "We were grossly underpowered" for data throughput, says Chaffin, because Informatica required "large intermediate data sets," which Windows NT saved to disk instead of the much faster system memory. The performance improvement from moving to 64-bit was "compelling" -- as much as 10 times better in some processes, says Chaffin.

Warnings

"There is no guarantee that all existing 32-bit applications will work in a 64-bit operating environment, so you have to test everything," warns Enck. Popular applications that rely on 32-bit drivers, such as the current version of Microsoft Exchange, also can't run under Windows Server x64. (Microsoft says Exchange 12, due late this year or early in 2007, will ship in both 32- and 64-bit versions.) Aside from thin-client, database and some Web serving applications, Enck advises customers to wait for Vista, which will ship in both 32- and 64-bit versions.

"It reminds me of some of the pain we had with 16-bit going to 32-bit," says Foote. "Microsoft is telling us it shouldn't be a problem in this case. I'm still in the 'I'll believe it when I see it' category."

When it comes to 64-bit business app-lications, he has plenty of company.

Scheier is a freelance writer in Boylston, Mass. You can reach him at rscheier@charter.net.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
Shop Tech Products at Amazon