It’s 64 bit or bust

With the memory ceiling fast approaching for 32-bit computer applications, many major IT vendors are pushing migration to a 64-bit platform. But this time, knowing the potential for customer backlash and learning from their experiences during the move to 32-bit computing, vendors have created a migration path that will be relatively painless. The end result is that the enterpise shift to 64-bit computing is no longer a matter of if, rather when.

At a recent 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 migration paths, this one will not involve “rip-and-replace.”

Companies 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.

Intel Corp., the world’s leading CPU manufacturer, has decided to offer parallel 64-bit strategies. At the lower end it offers the Xeon processor, designed for everything from e-mail servers to database servers — and eventually for all desktops. At the high end is its Itanium 2 chip, designed to go toe-to-toe with 64-bit proprietary RISC processors. AMD is channelling its server efforts on its Opteron processor. Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Sun Fire boxes, which at the lower end can run with Opteron processors, are now designed with its high end Sparc IV processor in mind.

This fundamental shift to 64 bit, (attendees were told 32 bit would be obsolete by the end of the decade) “is really about memory,” said Harlan McGhan, senior staff engineer with Sun’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, though admittedly no company is guaranteeing that level of memory capability quite yet.

For many users, 32-bit’s memory limitation is the main reason for the focus on 64 bit. A DBA with Telus Mobility (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 that are constrained by the amount of memory accessible 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’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.

Microsoft, not surprisingly, is confident its 64-bit version of Server 2003 delivers as promised and is using it internally, said John Oxley, IT professional manager with Microsoft Canada Co. In fact the company is almost exclusively buying 64-bit boxes, he said. The company has managed to reduce its data centre numbers from 12 to five, he said, and 64-bit computing was a key. Companies can now design applications “the way your application needs to be designed,” he said. “No longer do you have to fit (them) into that…2GB space.” Trust in the reliability of 64-bit industry standard is here, said Bruce Shaw, director, global enterprise marketing with AMD. Today Sabre reservation system is run on 64-bit AMD processors, as is Microsoft’s $US60 billion investment-portfolio system, 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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