The 64-bit evolution

Eric Foote is considering 64-bit Windows servers for his growing base of 4,500 users. But he’s in no big rush to make the shift from 32-bit computing. His first target application is Presentation Server 4.0 from Citrix Systems Inc., thin-client software that performs most application processing on the server, sending only changes in the user interface to the client’s PC.

“With the 64-bit technology, it looks like we can get 30 per cent to 40 per cent more users per server,” says Foote, leader of both the Intel server and security groups at Detroit Medical Center.

“That helps keep our costs down from an infrastructure standpoint and a [software] licensing standpoint,” he says, noting that his user base grows 20 per cent each year.

Before moving to 64-bit, though, Foote is waiting for his hardware vendor, Hewlett-Packard Co., to release 64-bit blade servers at the right price and for his clinical information system — Cerner Millennium from Cerner Corp. — to be ported to 64-bit Windows. He’s also waiting to see if older 32-bit applications will run as promised under 64-bit Windows, and whether he’ll have all the drivers he needs for his 64-bit environment.

Like Foote, many IT managers are adopting 64-bit Windows servers only for memory-starved applications such as thin-client software, large databases and some Web servers. For other uses, they’re waiting for more 64-bit applications and for the 64-bit version of Microsoft Corp.’s Vista server software, which is slated for release in 2007.

Evolution, not revolution

A 64-bit processor and software written for it (such as the operating system and applications) can process more data and can use larger amounts of memory than a 32-bit environment. Of those two improvements, the more important by far is the ability of 64-bit operating systems and processors to access as much as 16TB of memory, compared with 4GB for 32-bit Windows.

While 64-bit servers based on proprietary microprocessors and operating systems have long run high-end transaction-processing and scientific applications, 64-bit computing has come slowly to Windows- and x86-compatible microprocessors.

It has been more than a year since Microsoft released Windows Server 2003 x64 Edition and three years since Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (followed by Intel Corp.) unveiled mainstream 64-bit x86-compatible microprocessors.

But most IT managers responsible for mainstream business applications are moving cautiously to 64-bit Wintel platforms.

“The impact of 64-bit computing from [Intel and AMD’s mainstream 64-bit processors] will be gradual at best,” according to a September 2005 report from IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Because the processors can run many 32-bit applications without modification, the report said, “customers can phase in 64-bit hardware now but adopt 64-bit at the software level when it makes the most sense.”

The report predicts that the installed base of 64-bit Windows server operating systems will grow from 1.3 million worldwide in 2006 to 10.5 million in 2009 but notes that “the pivot point for x86 64-bit adoption comes as products based on the Vista code base enter mainstream availability.”

Even John Borozan, group product manager for the Windows Server group at Microsoft, acknowledges that “it’s probably two to three years before [64-bit Windows] becomes a mainstream choice.”

Microsoft has tried to jump-start the 64-bit software market, promising both 32- and 64-bit versions of the Vista operating system. It has also released 64-bit versions of popular software, most notably its SQL Server 2005 database.

SQL Server is a particularly good candidate for gains under 64-bit, says John Enck, an analyst at Gartner Inc., with price/performance benefits so impressive “they could challenge SQL Server running on Intel Itanium for some database implementations.”

With an estimated 50 per cent of its Presentation Manager customers running into memory bottlenecks, Citrix has included both 32- and 64-bit support in its Presentation Server 4.0. Sumit Dhawan, director of product management, estimates that 10 per cent to 20 per cent of Citrix’s customers are evaluating 64-bit operating systems and that as many as 80 per cent of new customers are considering them.

If the applications a customer needs are ready for 64-bit, says Dhawan, “there is no reason not to” upgrade, since the hardware costs no more than its 32-bit counterpart.

Another application that can benefit from 64-bit technology is data extraction, transform and loading — taking very large amounts of data from one database, ensuring its accuracy and integrity, and loading it into another database.

Healthways Inc., a Nashville-based health care management firm, runs its multi-terabyte Oracle data warehouse of patient information on an HP Itanium-based server, says Bert Chaffin, senior director of application development.”

“There is no guarantee that all existing 32-bit applications will work in a 64-bit operating environment, so you have to test everything,” warns Enck.

Popular applications that rely on 32-bit drivers, such as the current version of Microsoft Exchange, also can’t run under Windows Server x64.

Aside from thin-client, database and some Web server apps, Enck advises customers to wait for Vista, which will ship in both 32- and 64-bit versions.

“It reminds me of some of the pain we had with 16-bit going to 32-bit,” says Foote. “Microsoft is telling us it shouldn’t be a problem in this case. I’m still in the, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ category.”


Boost memory before moving to 64-bit

Because 64-bit Windows servers eliminate the memory bottleneck imposed by 32-bit operating systems, Citrix recommends that customers who are upgrading to 64-bit servers for performance load up on memory before increasing the number of processors in their servers.

Citrix’s recommended configuration for its thin- client Presentation Manager Server on 32-bit Windows uses a server with no more than two processors and 2GB to 4GB of memory, says Sumit Dhawan, director of product management.

That’s because as the server runs more user sessions, he says, “the system becomes memory-bound. As a result, the system isn’t able to leverage the power of the larger systems, such as a quad processor, which is usually four times the price of dual-processor hardware.”

For customers moving to 64-bit Windows, Citrix recommends adding more memory. This can be up to 32GB using 2GB memory chips to each of the 16 slots in the average server to existing dual-processor systems and evaluating the effect of added memory on the number of users who can be hosted on each server, Dhawan says. Most customers, he says, see their performance bottlenecks disappear after moving to 8GB of RAM.

For customers who are ready to replace their server hardware, Dhawan recommends servers with four dual-core processors and up to the maximum 64GB that those four processors can access in a 64-bit world.


Virtualization, 64-bit computing: do more with less

For IT managers who want to do more with less — meaning with fewer servers — virtualization and 64-bit technology are a great combination.

In a September 2005 report, IDC said Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition offered new benefits.

This is “especially in conjunction with next-generation technologies such as [Microsoft’s] Virtual Server and the future integration of the Windows Hypervisor,” the writers of the report commented.

Eric Foote, leader of the Intel server and security groups at Detroit Medical Center, says 64-bit Windows will be a good platform for VMware Inc.’s ESX Server, which he is already running for some applications.

For Karl Haas, director of Koehler Group’s SAP Competency Center, virtualization and a switch from 32- to 64-bit Windows servers are two main goals for 2006 Using virtualization software on 64-bit servers will allow Haas to quickly start another instance of a crashed application server that will have the same IP address and network name as the failed server.

This will reduce the need to manually configure his SAP applications to find the backup server, which would be necessary without virtualization, he says.

The ability to run the hyper-visor (which manages the virtual machines) in 64-bit mode allows a virtualized Windows server to run many more virtual machines, says Gartner analyst John Enck.

This will be the case even if each of the virtual machines runs in 32-bit mode, the analyst said.

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