PC and server performance can be hugely enhanced by 64-bit processing. But what are the business benefits and how quickly do you need to move? Sally Flood reports
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More than a decade after the introduction of 32-bit computing, the computer industry is on the verge of another seismic shift: from 32-bit to a new generation of 64-bit PCs and servers. Yet, although the performance benefits of 64-bit are compelling, experts argue that it could be years before most companies complete the move.
"In reality, very few companies actually need 64-bit computing," says Andy Butler, vice-president at analyst firm Gartner. "It is only really in the last year or so that companies have started to bump against the performance ceiling of 32-bit."
However, the industry seems to have other ideas. More than 24 manufacturers have already announced servers based on Intel's 64-bit Xeon MP processor, and AMD's 64-bit Opteron processor has been gathering market share for almost two years. "I would confidently predict that, within two years, most of our customers will be operating in a 64-bit environment," says John King, UK enterprise server manager at HP.
To understand the suppliers' confidence, it is important to understand what is happening in the world of 64-bit computing. The technology is hardly new. Companies such as IBM and HP have offered 64-bit servers since the late 1990s. However, these 64-bit servers ran on expensive Risc processors and Unix operating systems, and were restricted to high-end database management or technical applications.
Two events look set to change the way companies use 64-bit computing. First, Intel and AMD have released 64-bit processors specifically designed to run in midrange environments, on servers and desktop computers.
These processors also have the capability to run both 32- and 64-bit applications, so that companies do not have to make the leap to 64-bit before they are ready. "With the latest chips, you have an industry-standard way of migrating from 32- to 64-bit with no real additional overhead," says Stephen Atkins, product manager for IBM's pSeries of 64-bit servers.
Windows steps up a gear
Perhaps even more importantly, Microsoft has released its long-awaited, 64-bit version of Windows Server 2003, offering customers the opportunity to run Windows on either Intel or AMD's 64-bit processors. This means that Microsoft users can take advantage of the new 64-bit servers without changing operating systems. Windows Server 2003 for 64-bit will dramatically improve the performance of SQL Server and Active Directory, says Mark Tennant, server product marketing manager at Microsoft. "With 64-bit, everything can be done very fast," says Tennant. "It is really stepping everything up a gear."
By the end of 2006, Tennant says that all Microsoft applications will be 64-bit ready, although the company still plans to offer a 32-bit version of Longhorn, its next version of Windows. IDC forecasts that 20% of Windows servers sold over the next 12 months will ship with Windows Server 2003 x64.
The announcement will also drive progress across the industry, adds Atkins, "It means there is a driver there to persuade application developers to create 64-bit versions of their software," he says. "If Microsoft is going down the 64-bit route, the industry knows there will be a market, and if they do not create the software, people could migrate off their platforms."
One of the first companies to make the move to a 64-bit server infrastructure is ALG Software, an independent software company specialising in cost management and budgeting. "Our work is extremely data-intensive, and based on calculations and processing numbers. It requires a lot of memory and processing power," says Richard Barrett, ALG's vice-president of marketing. "Traditionally, we did a lot of batch processing, where you press the button, go home for the night and leave the computer to do the work."
However, customers have started to demand much faster processing, sometimes expecting calculations to be performed and adapted in virtually real time, says Barrett. "Managers in our customer companies are used to working on the web, where you click something and five seconds later it is there. They are starting to expect the same from database applications."
ALG placed the first order in the UK for Dell's 64-bit Poweredge 2850 server with four Xenon processors. The server can process calculations many times faster than the previous 32-bit servers, Barrett says. "We can process things virtually instantly in some cases that would have taken hours previously," he says. "We can also use the servers to test customer models and see the effects of minor adjustments very easily."
With 64-bit hardware and operating systems on the shelves - and applications on the horizon - IT directors have a decision to make. Do you choose 32-bit servers and applications to maintain consistency in your architecture, or do you set out on the upgrade path to 64-bit?
The first question to ask is whether the improvements offered by 64-bit technology will actually benefit your organisation. The biggest difference between 32-bit and 64-bit processors is something called addressable memory. Basically, this is the amount of memory that the processor can put aside to process a particular calculation or transaction. In a 32-bit processor, there is 4Gbytes of addressable memory, but some 64-bit processors offer massively increased capacity.
Suitable case for 64-bit
This additional memory will be most useful for companies that run applications which process a lot of data quickly, says Butler. The most obvious areas where this type of performance is in demand are database management and web servers, although other applications could also benefit from 64-bit. "There could be a case for using 64-bit if applications rely heavily on shared memory, such as ERP systems, or for intensive workstation applications such as computer-aided design or video editing," Butler says.
Hardware is only one aspect of 64-bit computing: companies will also need to consider whether they are ready to roll out 64-bit operating systems and applications. Because the new AMD and Intel chips are dual purpose, it will be possible to run 32-bit Windows operating systems - Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Windows 2000, for example - and their familiar 32-bit applications for years.
These systems must be tested carefully to ensure they will run properly in a 64-bit environment. There may be some incompatibilities, particularly where applications have 32-bit, kernel-mode components such as device drivers, Butler warns. Microsoft says that Windows XP x64 will not support Dos, 16-bit, or Posix applications, along with some older networking protocols. The company advises IT departments to check existing applications for compatibility, performance and reliability on Windows x64 before deploying new 64-bit servers.
Cast-iron guarantees needed
Vendors are also readying hundreds of 64-bit server applications, including 64-bit versions of IBM DB/2, SAP R/3 and Citrix Metaframe. Companies rolling out these applications must seek cast-iron guarantees from vendors that new applications will run in a 64-bit environment without any modification, says Atkins.
Although an x64 operating system should run 32-bit applications without any problems, there may be some incompatibilities. Certain applications will need to be tweaked to run in x64 environments.
For organisations that are likely to benefit from 64-bit technology, Gartner's advice is to take a slow and steady approach to upgrading. "There is absolutely no benefit in ripping out an existing 32-bit system and replacing it," says Butler. "Instead, we would advise IT directors to look for 64-bit readiness in all new hardware and software systems as part of the regular refresh cycle."
Butler advises IT departments to invest in 64-bit hardware and operating systems even if they have no immediate plans to use 64-bit applications.
"There is no particular price premium for 64-bit, although you will pay a bit more for the other improvements in the processors, like dual-core processing," he says. "But what it does mean is you will spend less when you do finally make the move, perhaps in four or five years' time."
Case study: Multiyork enjoys 64-bit without the cost of Unix
Furniture manufacturer and retailer Multiyork invested in Windows Server 2003 and HP Itanium Servers in 2003, but the company already had its eye on cutting edge 64-bit technology.
For many years, Multiyork had relied on a proprietary application for sales and ordering. However, in 2003 the company decided to invest in a new ERP system from SAP to process all customer orders centrally. The SAP system runs on the 64-bit edition of Windows Server 2003 for Itanium servers.
The HP server runs the 64-bit version of Windows Server 2003 operating system, along with 64-bit versions of SQL Server and SAP. The 64-bit version of SAP was developed specifically for Multiyork, so the company temporarily used a 32-bit version of the software at the start of the project. Once the 64-bit application was complete, the data was migrated from the 32-bit system without any problems.
The key benefit of 64-bit is that Multiyork can enjoy the faster 64-bit performance without investing in Unix, says David McAllister, IT manager at Multiyork . "We did already have some Unix, but we could see Microsoft was more cost-effective going forward," he says. The system offers not only 64-bit processing, but massive scalability and large amounts of addressable memory.
A 64-bit processor provides higher performance than 32-bit architecture by handling twice as many bits of information in the same clock cycle. This may be necessary to run memory and data intensive applications such as computer-aided design applications and databases.
A 64-bit processor architecture developed at Intel that is the foundation for Intel's 64-bit microprocessors. The Itanium was the first in Intel's line of IA-64 processors.
A Pentium microprocessor from Intel for use in midrange enterprise servers and workstations. Many Xeon processors can be used on a single server motherboard from Intel, allowing great scalability. The Xeon MP also offers 64-bit capability.
A reduced instruction set computer is a microprocessor that is designed to perform a smaller number of computer instructions so that it can operate at a higher speed. A Risc processor usually performs many millions of instructions per second more than other sorts of processors.