Microsoft all in on 64-bit

Microsoft made crystal clear last month that it is herding customers toward 64-bit platforms. And while users and analysts say that’s the right direction, they also believe companies may be slow to fall in line.

With the next versions of many of Microsoft’s servers, including Exchange 12, Compute Cluster Server and the R2 release of the Longhorn server, Microsoft will produce only 64-bit editions.

The announcement was one of many the company made recently, including the debut of a desktop search engine that includes management and deployment controls for IT, the first release under Microsoft’s Dynamics brand for its struggling business applications.

Microsoft is hitching its software wagon to 64 bit and its promise of a more robust and powerful computing platform. The platform, however, comes with special design considerations.

Areas where it differs from 32-bit platforms include firmware, hard disk partitions and device drivers. And while the x64 architecture supports 32-bit applications, the ramp-up to 64-bit will align with applications optimized for that platform, experts say.

Microsoft already has 64-bit versions of servers, including the recently released SQL Server 2005, but there also is a 32-bit version. Microsoft will have a 32-bit version of Windows Server Longhorn supported until 2017.

“It is about time Microsoft put its pants on and said ‘you know, if you want to run our technology this is what it takes,” says Nelson Ruest, a consultant and systems integrator with Resolutions Enterprises in Victoria, British Columbia. “In terms of Exchange 12, they can break memory barriers, they can break TCP/IP barriers in terms of the number of connections. It’s more stable, more performance and better power.”

The message is a good one, but users are not ready to abandon their 32-bit platforms.

“We do not have a 64-bit strategy yet,” says Will Nelson, COO for Compass Health in Mount Vernon, Wash. He says the company will take cues from its services partner Azaleos, which provides the healthcare company with a preconfigured appliance running Exchange and remote management services. “With Azaleos there would be a lot of coordination with them in moving to that platform.”

Some analysts say early adopters will be those who are desperate to step up their server and application performance.

“Unless customers have a business need, say they need more scalability out of a database or they have a process-intensive application, they are better staying on 32 bit,” says Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC.

He says customers will buy 64-bit hardware because that is becoming the norm, but it is likely users won’t go to a 64-bit Windows operating system until Longhorn R2, which is expected to ship in 2009.

Today, 64-bit versions of the Windows Server operating system account for only 0.1 per cent of Microsoft sales, IDC says. Microsoft shipped 64-bit Windows Server 2003 for Itanium-based Systems in April 2003 and Windows Server 2003 x64 Editions in April 2005. IDC projects new server licences for 64-bit Windows operating systems will spike in 2007 at about 35 per cent and then climb to 52 per cent and 63 per cent in 2008 and 2009.

“With our road map, we have a ‘ready when you are’ approach,” says Samm DiStasio, director of product management for the Windows Server division. “But we are trying to articulate when 64 bit happens in the various products because that is where you get the most bang for the buck.”

In addition to its future platforms, Microsoft says it is releasing an IT-centric version of its desktop search tool that gives IT the ability to deploy the software using Microsoft System Management Server or third-party deployment tools. The search engine, which works locally and across intranets and the Internet, integrates with e-mail, Office and SharePoint Portal Server. Users also can write custom filters to get at other data sources.

Microsoft also says Virtual Server 2005 R2 will be available soon, with the price for the Standard Edition dropping from US$499 to US$99 and the Enterprise Edition from US$999 to US$199. Microsoft is facing sharp competition in the virtual server market from established leader VMware and others such as Swsoft, which last week began shipping Version 3.5 of its Virtuozzo server for Windows with a price starting at US$1,000 per CPU.

Microsoft also says it will ship early next year a modeling tool called Capacity Planner, designed to help with rolling out Exchange and Microsoft’s Operations Manager.

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