Microsoft joins the 64-bit party

Microsoft Corp. has been sitting on the fringes of the high-end computing party for years, but the company is now looking to enter into the centre of the clique with a new 64-bit version of Windows 2000.

In the world of enterprise computing, where huge databases and data mining are the norm, 64-bit computing is increasingly in demand as companies move to conquer the Internet and integrate back-end systems to facilitate B2B e-commerce.

Microsoft Corp. has plenty of company in the 64-bit party room. In addition to the various flavours of Unix that have already reached that level, Intel Corp. is set to release its 64-bit chip, Itanium, in the second half of this year, according to the company. Microsoft has said it plans to have a 64-bit version of Windows 2000 for Intel available at that time.

But the old question remains: who is going to use the new technology?

“The people who are going to get the most benefit are…very large e-commerce servers [where] you want to have a lot of your information in memory, you don’t want to have to go to disk because that causes a severe penalty,” said Doug Cooper, Canadian marketing manager for Intel Corp. The 64-bit technology is scalable to accommodate 16 terabytes of memory versus 4GB for 32-bit, according to Microsoft.

Erik Moll, business Windows marketing manager at Microsoft in Mississauga, Ont., said Windows 2000 64-bit “will be targeted at mission critical high-end applications, for example e-commerce, data mining and transaction processing,” though he also sees it being useful in running very high-end CAD applications and complex mathematical work.

He said Microsoft will target the mid to higher range Unix environments and that going against the big enterprise systems is a long-term goal.

Analysts are not surprised by the Microsoft and Intel moves. “Obviously anything that Unix does is something that Microsoft is going to want to target,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC in Framingham, Mass. “Intel can’t move a lot faster than Microsoft because Microsoft is the primary operating system that is deployed on Intel architecture, so if Intel had a 64-bit chip two years ago, what would you do with it?” Gillen said.

The adoption rate of the new technology will depend on a variety of factors. According to Moll, the 64-bit version of Windows 2000 will require the Itanium chip. Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with IDC Corp., said the need to buy a new machine for the operating system is going to be a key factor in slowing the adoption rate.

But some Windows NT users see a definite need for Windows to move to 64-bit. Greg Speer, NT domain architect for Texas Instruments in Plano, Tex., said there are applications at T.I. which would benefit from 64-bit. “A lot of our modelling software would definitely be able to utilize the extra horsepower of a 64-bit machine.”

He said, though, that file and print applications do not require the added muscle. On the other hand, T.I. presently runs about 80 per cent of its mission critical systems on Unix, the majority of it 64-bit, according to Speer.

It is this domination by Unix that some analysts see as a difficult hurdle to overcome. “If 64-bit was really important then they (a company) wouldn’t be adopting Windows NT because 64-bit isn’t available today. You would see people moving towards the Unix architecture where you can get 64-bit computing today,” Gillen said.

Jonathan Eunice, analyst and president of Illuminata in Nashua N.H. agrees. “I do not see NT, over the next couple of years, giving either [IBM’s] OS/390 or Unix a genuine run for their money at the very high end.”

All the analysts interviewed for this story agreed there are areas in which 64-bit computing is an absolute must if a company wants to compete. The most common processes cited were data warehousing, applications with heavy duty encryption, and databases.

Kusnetzky sees Microsoft going a step further. “I would say that Microsoft is going after every single platform and would really like to see the day come where it is necessary to use Microsoft software to do anything with computers.”

Speer does sees some advantages though. “It would be nice to have your server infrastructure and also your client on the same operating system. It cuts down a lot of the cross platform challenges.”