WinHEC: 64 bits take a bite out of memory limitations

When Dan Wood’s company decided to test the bleeding edge of graphics processing, the firm discovered that the current stock of 32-bit computing architectures simply couldn’t cut it.

Wood is vice-president, technical marketing of Matrox Graphics Inc., a graphics equipment maker in Dorval, Que. It was trying to build a four-by-four screen display system, a 16-panel beast designed to blow Matrox’s competition out of the water.

The massive display unit’s substructure sat on Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP, a 32-bit operating system. While it’s a fine platform for the sorts of devices that Matrox normally builds, the OS couldn’t keep up with the memory demands in this case.

“In order to support the amount of visualization required, we have to use four different graphics chips, each of which has 256MB of cached frame buffer memory, which adds up to a gigabyte,” Wood explained. “The entire system can only give you two gigabytes. It needs a lot of that memory for the actual applications and the OS itself. We were looking to eat up such a big part of that memory that there just wasn’t enough to give to the rest of the applications and the OS. It just didn’t work.”

Wood attended Microsoft Corp.’s WinHEC conference held in Seattle to see what the software giant and its partners were doing with 64-bit computing – a new electronic architecture that has already solved the problem Matrox experienced with its system.

Wood chatted with members of the Canadian press during a roundtable discussion yesterday that included Elliot Katz, product manager, Windows client at Microsoft Canada Co., Derick Wong, a Microsoft Canada senior product manager, and Shannon Poulin, Intel Corp.’s director, enterprise platform marketing.

The tech reps talked about the benefits of 64-bit computing, how their respective work groups were tackling this new digital environment, and the benefits for businesses. On hand as well was Eddie Chan, an IT industry analyst at IDC Canada Ltd., to provide a sober second thought that might help enterprise IT managers as they mull the 64-bit trend.

Katz said 64-bit computers make quick work of data processing jobs that were too intense for 32-bit systems. “With 32-bit processing, there are a lot of limitations – memory bottlenecks. For example, you have a 2GB-per-user processing limit. There are workarounds, but they’re difficult to implement. Most developers do not use them.”

That can lead to problem for users accessing massive databases or doing high-end scientific calculations. “Sometimes you can offload things to the GPU (graphics processor unit), and sometimes you’re stuck, based on the fact that you’re using a 32-bit OS,” Katz said.

Microsoft’s answer for client-side computers is the Windows XP Professional x64 edition, which works in concert with 64-bit microprocessors from the likes of Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) to improve the processing picture.

The new OS provides more physical memory than does the 32-bit version (128GB versus 4GB respectively) and more virtual memory (16TB versus 4GB). Based on the Windows Server 2003 code, Windows XP Professional x64 Edition is meant for intense computing requirements at places like CAD/CAM operations and scientific research firms, Katz said.

Microsoft Canada’s Wong talked about Windows Server 2003’s 64-bit versions: Windows Server 2003 Standard x64 Edition; Windows Server 2003 Enterprise x64 Edition; Windows Server 2003 Data Center x64 Edition; Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition SP1 for Itanium Systems; and Windows Server 2003 Data Center Edition SP1 for Itanium Systems.

The last two are meant to work on Intel’s 64-bit Itanium processor, which, according to Intel’s Poulin, provides processing power specifically for 64-bit stacks, although it does support 32-bit applications in a 32-bit emulator mode.

Microsoft built the non-Itanium 64-bit Windows Server OSes to work with Intel’s Xeon chip and AMD’s 64-bit chip, which support 64-bit and 32-bit applications, no emulators required.

Poulin said businesses might prefer to go with Itanium if they need their 64-bit apps to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. Although the Xeon also supports 64-bit apps, it doesn’t do so as well as Itanium. On the other side of the coin, 32-bit apps running on the Xeon chip operate faster than do 32-bit apps running in the Itanium 32-bit emulator.

Wong from Microsoft said the new Windows Server OSes support 64-bit apps, and provide a significant performance boost to 32-bit apps too. He noted that companies could save money using 64-bit servers, because the new equipment can handle more processing requests. That means businesses could reduce the number of servers they own – do more with less — thereby reducing server maintenance costs and freeing up IT resources for other technical tasks.

“It also provides better reliability,” Wong said. “Eliminate your low memory constraints and you have more stable processing times, more stable processing applications…because the CPU’s going to have more than enough cycles to handle the [requirements].”

IDC Canada’s Chan pointed out that it could be difficult for IT managers to know at a glance just what the right mix of processors, operating systems and applications should be in the ensuing switch from 32-bit to 64-bit computing. It’s up to enterprise tech heads to scrutinize their application performance requirements and migration plans to understand how 64-bit architectures might benefit their workplaces.

Matrox is already benefiting from 64-bit computing. The company eventually built its powerful graphics subsystem on a beta 64-bit version of Windows XP after the 32-bit version proved incapable of supporting the platform. On the 64-bit OS, the giant display unit “worked perfectly from day one,” Wood said.

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