Getting ready to take the 64-bit bait

As IT vendors begin shipping 64-bit servers at an increasing rate, both enterprises and small and midsized firms will be forced to at least consider whether the benefits offered by the new technology will be applicable to their business processes.

Knowing when to take the 64-bit step will depend on how current IS memory capabilities are meeting the needs of business processes, according to industry analysts.

“A very simplistic, but pretty useful, rule is to [exploit] 64-bit if you’re running into 32-bit memory limits,” says Gordon Haff, senior analyst and deputy research director for Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc.

The advantages that 64-bit brings to market will affect three core functions – database management, Web serving and terminal serving, says John Enck, research vice-president, server and directory services, for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

“The first applications that develop full 64-bit functionality will be large databases,” says Enck. “Already IBM DB2 is a 64-bit extension application, and Microsoft will be launching SQL Server 2005 next month that will support 64-bit functionality with Windows Server 2003 x64.”

Enck predicts the adoption of 64-bit technology will be pervasive, but the transition slow, as operating systems and applications are gradually developed to support full 64-bit servers.

According to factory figures obtained from Joe Gonzalez, lead server analyst for Gartner, a total of 35,256 x86 64-bit servers were shipped to the Canadian market in Q2, 2005, compared to 4,065 in the same quarter last year.

“All hardware, from this day onward, will be shipped with 64-bit functionality,” says Enck. “But the transition from 32-bit, this time, will be a lot easier than [when] we upgraded from 8-bit to 16-bit and 16-bit to 32-bit. 64-bit servers are able to support current 32-bit applications, with even some increase in performance from our 32-bit software.”

However, Enck cautions adopters to test 32-bit applications for 64-bit compatibility. “Once compatibility has been established, and the application’s benefits are clear, you can move quickly to the pilot and production deployment stages,” says Enck.

Illuminata analyst Haff says to take full advantage of 64-bit extensions found in Intel’s Itanium and AMD’s Opteron processors, it’s necessary to be running 64-bit operating systems and applications.

He says the moot issue for those considering the upgrade is how much memory an application, or collection of applications running on a single server, need to run at peak efficiency. “At the end of the day, if you have (say) a Windows server that would benefit from more than 3GB of physical memory, then you’re a candidate for using 64-bit servers, with the compatible applications and operating system.”

Haff says potential 64-bit shops fall into one of two categories: those running a large application, for example a SQL Server database, and those running multiple smaller applications on a single server, for example using VMware to consolidate multiple servers into one.

“Even if each virtual machine has a relatively modest memory footprint, it doesn’t take much to get beyond the 3GB limit of 32-bit Windows,” says Haff.

William Mougayar, vice-president and service director, technology research practice, for Boston, Mass.-based Aberdeen Group Inc., says another benefit brought by 64-bit was the flow of XML traffic over the network.

“There’s been a large increase the volume of XML-wrapped messages traveling over networks, especially in RFID processes,” says Mougayar. “This XML traffic is very verbose and requires considerable processing power, so the increased memory addressing capabilities of 64-bit will be able to handle the traffic much easier.”

Deciding whether to upgrade to 64-bit is really a business decision, not an IT or a data centre requirement, according to Mougayar. A company needs to look at which business processes are breaking down because of manual interjection due to memory constraints, he says.

Real-time analytical and high-volume payment processing environments will be affected most, says Mougayar. 64-bit could resolve information processing bottlenecks experienced with very large 32-bit applications when the system juggles multiple parameters for a match and checks multiple sources at the same time, he says.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with San Jose, Calif.-based Enderle Group, says the security and stability offered by 64-bit is another benefit, but cautions against upgrading prematurely.

“Right now, 64-bit hardware is actually more secure,” says Enderle. “There are virtually no 64-bit viruses, so it has some general security advantages, much of which has to do with the platform’s young age.”

For servers, says Enderle, unless the business is supporting 64-bit workstation activities such as a large Oracle database or other form of modeling, “you probably don’t have to worry about 64-bit yet.”

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