64-Bit Computing Comes Into Focus

Firms in specialized sectors have already begun to reap the benefits of 64-bit servers. Now Windows x64, dual-core chips, and apps optimized for 64-bit platforms are taking advanced processing into

September 2, 2005

12 Min Read
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Between now and the end of 2006, most enterprise IT shops ought to begin to forge a migration path from standard 32-bit server operating systems to 64-bit server OSes.

That's the message from an array of enterprise users and industry analysts, plus -- as is to be expected -- vendors with 64-bit silicon, operating systems, and applications to market and sell.

Once aimed mainly at users tackling advanced engineering tasks or manipulating complex graphics, 64-bit server operating systems are poised to move into a wide range of industries and to be adopted by many enterprise users.

Microsoft's Bill Gates: "Going from 32 to 64 is more than we've ever done."

For any user, the jump in available resources is astounding. In 32-bit computing, system memory is limited to 4 gigabytes. But in a 64-bit computing architecture, users have access to the exponentially greater benefits of 128 GB of RAM as well as terabytes of virtual memory. Applications that let users manipulate large data sets or rich graphical elements enjoy significant performance boosts in a 64-bit environment.

CPU manufacturers Intel, AMD, and IBM have all brought dual-core processors -- for use in both 32-bit and 64-bit environments -- to market in recent weeks and months. A range of established 64-bit OSes is available in assorted Linux and Unix flavors; since April, so are Microsoft's Windows XP Professional x64 and Windows Server 2003 x64. All are ready to exploit dual-core chips. The third layer -- applications tuned to 64-bit operating systems -- is falling into place, as vendors such as Citrix with Presentation Server 4.0, IBM with DB2, and Oracle (which first released a 64-bit version of its database 10 years ago) optimize their products for a 64-bit platform.It's About Time

"64-bit computing today envelops the entire computing world, but it took the longest time for it to come to the x86 world," notes Jean Bozman, research vice president at International Data Corp.'s worldwide server group.

Bill Gates concurs. In a story published April 25, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect told InformationWeek, "We haven't had an address space transition since 1986."

Gates said he believes the transition to 64-bit computing "is going to be the simplest address-space transition ever. And yet, it's the biggest address space transition ever. Going from 32 [bit] to 64 [bit] is more than we've ever done."

AMD's Margaret Lewis: "We are entering a world where there are a lot of searches and surfing and things like that, all of it touching larger and larger pieces of data."

"The world had already moved to 64-bit in the Unix RISC [space] in the mid-1990s," says Margaret Lewis, commercial solutions strategist at AMD. "We started [designing the Opteron processor] in 1998 and 1999, because we could see then that there would be [limitation] issues with software running in a 32-bit world."

With 64-bit memory addressing, "obviously, database is the first application people think of" that has made significant performance strides, Lewis continues, noting that Oracle, IBM and others shipped 64-bit versions of their database products in the months after Opteron came out in April 2003. "But we are entering a world where there are a lot of searches and [Web] surfing and things like that, all of it touching larger and larger pieces of data."Beyond the database software that was the natural first beneficiary of 64-bit computing's added power, other applications are in the process of being tweaked by developers to take advantage of the gains made available by the combination of 64-bit operating systems running under a 64-bit chip.

"From my perspective, the principal benefit of the move to 64-bit operating systems is that applications no longer have to worry about 2-gigabytye or 4-gigabyte constraints on their virtual memory capacity," notes Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with research firm Insight 64. "The large enterprise applications -- SAP, BEA, PeopleSoft -- all of those applications can run better if you give them more memory."

Thanks For The Memory
Hollywood has eagerly embraced 64 bit-computing from the get-go. "We have to work with large data sets and a lot of contiguous projects," says Daniel Gregoire, president of Halon Entertainment in Emeryville, Calif. Halon is a start-up specializing in pre-visualization -- in effect, the process of verifying that the computer can produce the special effects that exist only in the director's mind -- and other digital content creation for movies. Halon is at work now on effects for Ghostrider, Antarctica, and other forthcoming motion pictures. "The more RAM, the bigger the projects we can endure," Gregoire says.

While he was still on staff at JAK Films -- Lucasfilm's "pre-viz" arm -- Gregoire used an eight-node cluster of servers running Windows XP Professional x64 under a 140-Opteron "render farm" to design the spectacular effects in Episodes 2 and 3 of the Star Wars saga, which concluded this year. Due in part to the computing power made possible by the use of a 64-bit OS, director George Lucas could look over the shoulders of the team developing the films' digital effects, directing what Gregoire calls "the digital assets" in near-real time, rather than forcing developers to make changes at the director's discretion, then generate a new version to show him a day or two later.

"It became an interactive environment," notes Gregoire, who says a 12-person team slogged away at the visual effects for Episode 3, The Revenge of the Sith. "We were doing two or three sequences simultaneously. And we were rendering a lot, which puts a lot of pressure on the servers and the connection. There's a lot of input/output; the data is sent to the nodes and then sent back."
64-Bit In The Enterprise
Two key factors -- both of which are likely to provide distinct advantages to enterprise users -- are shaping the adoption of 64-bit computing in the enterprise.Because the chipmakers engineered the new generation of processors to support both 32-bit and 64-bit environments, there truly is a viable and gradual migration path available. No one will be ripping out 32-bit applications wholesale, observers say; in fact, they'll enjoy significant performance gains running them in a 64-bit environment. When 64-bit editions of, say, SAP R/3 or Microsoft SQL Server come to market, users can upgrade and realize still more performance enhancement.

"Corporate buyers are interested in longevity in lifecycles," says Toni Duboise, a senior analyst in Current Analysis' desktop computing group. "Therefore, the 64-bit AMD and Intel processor-based machines are considered a sound investment for those looking ahead of the curve."

Sweetening the deal even further, the silicon's performance gains can be realized in ever smaller, faster, and more affordable machines that consume less energy.

Archipelago Holdings' Steve Rubinow: "We're planning on hardware downgrades."

"We're planning on hardware downgrades," says Steve Rubinow, CTO at Archipelago Holdings in Chicago. The country's first all-electronic stock exchange moved off 32-bit Windows onto 64-bit Sun Solaris two years ago. "Much to the consternation of the hardware vendors, their stuff is becoming cheaper and more powerful," Rubinow says. "This is a very good trend for us."

The arrival of Windows XP Professional x64 may herald a new wave of 64-bit server adoption, analysts say. XP x64 and Windows Server 2003 x64 are each available in three versions: Standard, Enterprise, and Datacenter. They are priced the same as the 32-bit editions."Windows is there now," says Brookwood. Since Windows accounts for a substantial portion of the low-end server business, he adds, the march toward the mainstreaming of 64-bit computing is underway.

Early Adopters

Yet Windows wasn't there when some enterprise users made the leap to 64-bit. Archipelago's Rubinow oversaw the move from a Wintel-based network -- which in 2003 lacked a 64-bit processor -- to one running Sun Solaris more than two years ago.

Even with the availability of 64-bit chips supporting 64-bit Windows, "I expect we will stick with a Unix-like operating system," Rubinow says. "We have an incumbent we are happy with, and it's difficult to unseat an incumbent" -- in this case primarily Solaris, though there is some Linux in use as well -- "unless you are really unhappy with it."

Rubinow says Archipelago wanted to make the move to 64-bit servers for several reasons. "One was reliability, which is really not a function of 32-bit or 64-bit, but we wanted an OS that was more battle-tested for the kinds of things we do," he says. "And we need huge addressable space, more than 32-bit would allow."

In the case of Magma Design Automation, a Santa Clara, Calif., developer of electronic design automation (EDA) software, the tail wagged the dog -- at least in the late '90s, before the advent of 64-bit servers. Back then, the company re-engineered its products when the limits of available processing power were reached."At 32-bit, you could only do a certain size of design," says Jayant Shah, director of quality assurance at Magma, which develops several EDA products, including BlastFusion. "As design sizes get bigger, the run-time gets bigger. It could take one week to get a single design cycle done.

"At the time, given the hardware limitations, we decided to do a drastic overhaul of our software, though we realized that was a very expensive proposition," Shah recalls. "Then along came Linux."

Several vendors' flavors of the open-source operating system included native support for 64-bit environments, Shah says. "We were the first in our market to be able to port our application to Linux and take advantage of the clock speeds the x86 architecture allows compared to [Sun's Sparc] architecture." AMD's Opteron chip -- the first processor designed for native 64-bit computing in an x86 environment -- let Magma develop "a whole suite of applications taking advantage of the 64-bit environment and the clock-speed advantages. Even the 32-bit applications were running faster," Shah says.
The 64-Bit Trifecta
With a range of 64-bit silicon, operating systems, and applications on the market and more coming each month -- and as hardware prices drop and power consumption falls -- enterprise customers are well positioned to move away from the classic 32-bit environment. No one expects them to do so overnight -- nor do market conditions demand that they do.

"By the end of the year, it will be hard to buy a server that does not have 64-bit capability," says Insight 64's Brookwood.

Yet "you don't have to upgrade every [machine] wholesale," notes AMD's Lewis. "Say your procurement plan is to buy five new workstations and three new servers" in the next one to two years. "They can be 64-bit workstations and servers because they will run all of your 32-bit software today," she says.

Dixon Ticonderoga's Garrett Grainger, Jr.: "On the desktop, I would deploy to the power-user guinea pig -- we have several that always want the latest and greatest."

Enterprise users say that if and when they do begin a rollout of 64-bit operating systems, they will consider advantages from the perspective of both client and server.

"I would use the server side for testing installed applications in the development environment," says Garrett Grainger, Jr., CIO at Dixon Ticonderoga, the Heathrow-Fla.-based manufacturing company perhaps best known for its eponymously named pencils. "On the desktop, I would deploy to the power-user guinea pig -- we have several that always want the latest and greatest."

Yet when it comes to actual deployment, Grainger adds, "I would start on the server side with one of our Web sites. It would get a significant amount of exercise without endangering mission-critical applications."

Even if they've already deployed 64-bit operating systems, many enterprise users are waiting for applications they rely on to be made over in 64-bit versions. At New Energy Associates, the application servers sitting between customers' Web browsers and New Energy's massive 64-bit Oracle database are still 32-bit, notes Neal Tisdale, vice president of software development for the Atlanta-based Siemens subsidiary.

New Energy Associates' Neal Tisdale: "We have been pulled into Linux by our customers because Linux natively addresses more than 32 gigabytes."

"We have quite a bit of Linux," he says. "We have been pulled into Linux by our customers" -- ranging from small municipal electric companies to huge industrial utilities -- "because Linux natively addresses more than 32 gigabytes. And, Oracle on Linux runs a lot faster than Oracle on Windows." While New Energy is running 64-bit Oracle, customers in the field are getting significant gains using older 32-bit versions as well, he says.For his part, Magma's Shah predicts, "AMD will continue to improve their clock speed on the Opteron, but that itself will not be enough" for the memory and run-time demands of elite users. In order to make further gains, Magma is "taking advantage of [Opteron's] multi-threading capabilities. We are doing distributed computing. And we are splitting tasks into multiple [parts] to reduce the cycle time."

In a 64-bit world, segmenting the processing of tasks is no longer the only means by which to gain performance boosts. Before Archipelago made the move to Solaris, CTO Rubinow said colleagues advised him to consider running several 32-bit servers rather than one server with 64-bit addressable space.

Rubinow decided to go a different route. "I favor simplicity, even though distributed computing is kind of cool. I like to have fewer things to manage. Because we are so concerned about the speed at which something goes through the system, it's faster for two processors to communicate if they are on a single box than if they are on two [servers]," Rubinow explains. "For us, when every microsecond counts, when we are doing hundreds of millions of transactions a day, you pay attention to those kinds of things."

As long as hardware and software vendors continue to deliver products that exploit the advances made possible by 64-bit processors, Rubinow and others will keep pushing computer processing power past its old limits, with an eye on that day in the distant future when even the speed gains made possible by 64-bit will seem quaint.

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