Microsoft moving to 64-bit-only shop

In his keynote address at the company’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle last month, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates told more than 3,500 attendees the company would be shifting its products to 64-bit only beginning later this year.

Gates also used WinHEC to announce the availability of the Beta 2 releases of three major products: Microsoft’s next-generation OS, Windows Vista; its next office suite, Microsoft Office 2007; and Windows Server, codenamed Longhorn.

WinHEC’s purpose is for Microsoft to educate its hardware partners on the hardware requirements for its coming releases and its future roadmap, and give Microsoft feedback on where hardware manufacturers are going.

Gates said the company is taking advantage of processor advances from Intel and AMD to be even more ambitious in what its software can do, calling it a virtuous cycle of innovation.

“As the hardware advances, it inspires us to be more ambitious and innovative with our software to take advantage of it,” said Gates. “The innovation feeds on itself.”

Gates also said that, beginning with the release of Exchange Server 2007 later this year, all of Microsoft’s products will eventually be 64-bit exclusively. This will initially be implemented on the server side.

“It’s a clear message, starting on the server but moving down to the client over time, that 64-bit is pervasive and here to stay,” said Gates. “[It] allows us to achieve record levels of performance that even more expensive machines can’t achieve.”

The next major shift, Gates predicted, will be to multicore processing. That shift is already happening on the hardware side, and Gates said Microsoft is investing heavily to rearchitect its software to fully harness multicore. “If we’re going to keep those cores working for the user and not just sitting idle, it’s going to require some very innovative architectural work,” said Gates.

Microsoft’s other major challenge is the expanding device ecosystem, from desktop PCs and laptops to tablets, handhelds and new form factor devices.

Gates said the goal is to make it a seamless user experience across devices, and he said Microsoft is investing heavily in new synching technology.

“The PC is in no way standing still, and that provides opportunity for all of us, but we need to make sure there are standards so all the levels of the stack are working together,” said Gates.

Joel Martin, vice-president, enterprise software with IDC Canada in Toronto, said with Vista supporting both 32-bit and 64-bit natively, there’s a clear migration path for enterprises to 64-bit processing.

“Obviously, servers will be the first to move to 64-bit just because of the amount of data (they’re dealing with),” said Martin. “From an application and workload standpoint, once you start seeing 64-bit take off and being implemented at a server level, I imagine desktops will probably follow pretty quickly.”

Martin said he sees Windows Server Longhorn as the tipping point where companies, when they deploy Longhorn, will likely deploy a 64-bit server solution. Once it’s proven on the server, he said, desktop migration will likely follow.

With companies revisiting their hardware roadmaps with the requirements for Windows Vista in mind, Martin said firms should also look at 64-bit computing on the server and at the desktop for power users and at multicore processing, which he said will soon become the de facto standard for enterprise PCs.

Hardware manufacturers are excited about Vista’s potential to boost sales of their products, and Toronto-based graphics card manufacturer ATI is no exception.

Terry Makedon, group manager of the product manager group at ATI, said that with Vista, ATI finally has an enterprise-level “killer app” for its higher-end graphics cards.

“We thank Microsoft every time we can, because this is a home run for us,” said Makedon.

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