64 bit or bust

In a display of industry solidarity, all players involved in 64-bit computing are convinced there is no turning back. It is not longer a matter of if, rather when.

At Thursday’s Future of 64-bit Computing in the Enterprise conference in Toronto, everyone from Microsoft Corp. to AMD Inc. to Dell Inc. spouted the advantages of using a 64-bit platform. But unlike previous seismic hardware shifts, this one will not involve “rip and replace.” “(It’s) all driven by applications.”IDC Canada’s Alan Freedman about the adoption of 64 bit computingTextCompanies will be able to run their 32-bit applications on the newest AMD and Intel 64-bit processors with no performance degradation.

The backward compatibility will allow companies to buy 64-bit capable servers to replace older 32-bit servers and move to 64-bit computing when the business case exists. Even Dell, not known to be a technology risk-taker, now ships all of its servers 64-bit capable.

This fundamental shift to 64 bit, (attendees said 32 bit would be obsolete by the decade’s end) “is really about memory,” said Harlan McGhan, senior staff engineer with Sun Microsystem Inc.’s Scalable Enterprise Group.

Today’s 32-bit computers have a theoretical ceiling of 4GB of memory, though from a practical point of view it is closer to 2GB for applications due to the way operating systems handle memory. In the 64-bit world, the amount is exponential: 4GB times 4GB, or 16 Exabytes.

For many users, 32-bit’s memory limitation is the main reason they are focusing on 64 bit. A DBA with Telus (who requested that his name be withheld) said the company is running 64-bit RISC servers and is looking to find a 64-bit solution to run high-end databases constrained by the amount of memory they can access on a 32-bit industry-standard system. “You don’t want to be always going to disk,” he said.

Other users pointed to a dearth of tools designed to analyze performance of 32-bit applications running on 64-bit servers as a reason they may wait to move to 64 bit.

IDC Canada Ltd.’s Alan Freedman said 64-bit adoption “is all driven by applications.” Intel Corp.’s Itanium 2 processor has more than 3,000 applications developed to take advantage of its 64-bit configuration, and will have close to 4,500 available by year’s end, Freedman said. He added that the efficacy of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 64-bit edition SP1 will also be a “critical junction” in how quickly 64 bit is adopted by the enterprise. If performance is not what is expected it will be a big inhibitor to 64-bit adoption, he said.

Regardless of the exact timeline of everyone’s move to 64 bit, McGhan wanted attendees to understand that though the jump from 32 bit to 64 was quick, no one is going to be told at a conference five years from now that they need to move to 128-bit computing. “You can set your mind at ease. It’s not going to happen,” he said.

Needing more than 16 Exabytes of memory will be a problem for our grand children, he said.

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