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Size isn't everything, or so the saying goes -unless you're a server manufacturer or chip vendor, that is. Marketing people in the hardware space have been falling over themselves to offer 64-bit computing to the masses. But the masses have apparently been fairly indifferent, judging by reports of hardware sales. The channel, meanwhile, has to work out a way to turn a profit out of it.
Sales of servers using one of the most significant 64-bit chips - Intel's Itanium - have been sluggish, according to Gartner figures, which suggest only 2,601 boxes were sold in the final quarter of last year (the first full quarter after the launch), many of which would have been demonstration units. The main reason for this, other than the economic climate and the lack of early adopters, is doubtless down to the lack of 64-bit application software and the limited heavy duty uses to which 64-bit computing is suited. Some corporates in areas such as financial services, the graphics industry and telecommunications are challenged by large number-crunching tasks, but such computing challenges usually lie in niche areas such as scientific research.
There are nevertheless some benefits to using 64-bit servers, according to David Johnson, principal technology consultant at Amdahl IT Services. Companies can use the enhanced boxes to consolidate their IT infrastructures, he says. There's an IBM commercial currently running in the US in which a group of harried directors call the police into their IT room, frantic that all their servers have been stolen. A lackadaisical geek then wanders out munching a doughnut. "Nah, we just put all our data onto one server," he says. "I sent out an e-mail." The reasoning is, why use a bunch of clustered boxes with the associated manageability issues when you can run everything on a single, more powerful server that's easier to manage?
The idea of rationalising applications from a number of clustered boxes onto a single, more manageable 64-bit server may save cash in the long run. But with companies strapped for cash and needing to save money now, buying an expensive new server is not at the top of everyone's agenda.
Sun has come under particular criticism from the press for expensive server pricing of late. The company, which has been exclusively selling 64-bit servers for years after overhauling its Sparc processor architecture, has been against the ropes in the past year following the attrition of its dot com start-up and telecommunications-heavy customer base. "You can buy a Netra system for £900," says Jonathan Mills, marketing manager at Sun. "People don't realise what our systems are priced at."
The real issue, of course, is price/performance and a popular way of measuring that is through the Transaction Processing Council's TPC-C benchmarks. Unfortunately, Sun only appears to have registered one higher-end machine for the benchmark, as opposed to IBM's 17 and HP's eight.
IBM is one of Sun's major competitors in the 64-bit computing market and like its rival has been focusing heavily on it, says Simon Robertson, P-Series northern region product manager for IBM. "We introduced the S70 high-end SMP server in 1997. Every high-end SMP server has been 64-bit since then. Today, we only sell two 32-bit products and those are single-processor workstations and rackmounts," he says.
The company has also been busy revamping its AIX operating system for 64-bit computing. Originally, it would run a 32-bit version of the operating system on a 64-bit machine, reshaping 64-bit calls into 32 bits so the software could deal with them, creating a software overhead. Since creating a version specifically designed to handle 64-bit calls, IBM has been able to take full advantage of 64-bit hardware.
This is important for its users. The increased number of bits per memory word enables 64-bit applications to address large amounts of memory on some 64-bit machines - much more than in a 32-bit system. This makes 64-bit computers particularly useful for manipulating large amounts of data in memory rather than loading smaller pieces of data in from hard drive storage.
Because memory is faster than disk I/O, it makes database access much faster. The types of companies that would be interested in this include call centres with their need for fast access to customer data.
The problem is that very few applications are tailored for 64-bit computing. The recompilation involved is expensive and because sales of 64-bit servers are relatively low (unless, as with Sun customers, you have no choice but to buy one), rebuilding software applications to accommodate 64-bit processors is likely to be low on most software vendors' agendas.
One software sector that has been eager to release 64-bit products is the database sector. Because 64-bit computing is all about large amounts of data, the likes of Oracle and IBM have leaped to capitalise on that market. IBM, in particular, has a vested interest because of its server and operating system interests: it needs
64-bit databases to support its other products and is producing a 64-bit version of its database for the Itanium processor. Oracle is also a big supporter of Itanium.
Microsoft, the third of the big database software vendors, has not yet shipped a 64-bit version of its database, in spite of the fact that it now has a 64-bit version of its operating system in the form of its Advanced Server, Limited Edition. Cassandra Nuttall, server solutions manager at Microsoft, says the company is basing it on the 64-bit Windows release, which means it should be here soon.
In the meantime, 64-bit users will have to settle for a 32-bit version of Microsoft's database running with countless other applications. This doesn't necessarily make 64-bit architectures useless for those customers. A common use for 64-bit systems is to partition them, running multiple copies of the same 32-bit application for speed.
Mix 'n' match
Nevertheless, if you don't have the right architecture, running 32-bit applications on 64-bit systems can be a challenge. Compaq is a case in point. The company has had to absorb a lot of different technologies in the past few years, following its acquisition of Tandem and Digital. With Digital, it acquired the 64-bit Alpha processor that was launched in the early 90s. Richard George, AlphaServer business manager for Compaq, says Digital ported its OpenVMS operating system from VAX architecture to Alpha architecture in 1991. Now, it's porting it to Itanium. OpenVMS applications have to be ported too, the problem being that the older the software gets, the more likely the source code is to have been lost, leaving you with a binary you can't recompile, as well as a big headache. Compaq's answer was to use a VAX VMS emulator sitting on an Alpha processor. "In terms of the application, it will run as fast, if not faster, than it did on the older technology," he says. But the company won't guarantee it because the emulators are provided by third parties.
Whatever the performance, there will still be an overhead when using an emulator, which means it will reduce the performance gain that you could have enjoyed. Still, this is where opportunities for resellers come in. Margins on 64-bit equipment are likely to be high, but not as high as those on the services that can be offered. "The scoop for channel partners is that you want to invest in people who can help port application code because there is a lot of home-grown code written out there," he says.
George is promoting the margin opportunities for the Alpha because of the stake the company still has in the processor platform. Although Compaq has licensed its EV8 Alpha architecture to Intel in what amounts to a capitulation to its Itanium rival, he explains that Compaq will still be shipping Alpha technologies until 2007. The current Alpha technology EV6.8 is shipping now, with EV7 shipping next year and its successor EV7.9 shipping in around 18 months. In 2004, Compaq will complete its Open VMS port to Itanium, but will continue releasing faster Alpha chips until 2007. But with Itanium clearly in the centre of the company's radar, Alpha will be sliding further towards the periphery of the processor sector each year. On the software side, Compaq's merger with HP will see a single Unix platform emerge, says George, and in 2004, a system combining elements of Compaq's Tru64 Unix with HP's HP-UX will be available for the Itanium platform.
One advantage Itanium has over Alpha is that unlike porting OpenVMS applications to Alpha, you don't have to recompile applications when moving from 32-bit Intel to IA-64. This is because when they developed the processor, Intel and HP made sure it was backwards compatible. On the other hand, if you don't recompile, you won't be able to take advantage of 64-bit features such as greater memory addressing. One of the unique features of Itanium is that it merges little-endian and big-endian architectures. Little-endian processors store binary numbers with the bits of least value at one end of the binary word, while big-endian processors store them the other way round. This was a huge problem for Intel and HP when they were trying to develop a processor that was backwards-compatible with Intel's IA-32 system and HP's PA-RISC system because each of the processor architectures used a different model.
This means companies moving from a little-endian architecture such as IA-32 to a big-endian architecture such as HP's 64-bit PA-RISC will need to make significant changes to their data - exporting it from their applications, converting and then reimporting. This is another area in which channel partners can sell services, perhaps also selling ad hoc storage systems for holding the data while it's being converted, says George.
The other thing companies will need to think about when purchasing 64-bit systems is their I/O and storage technology. With 64-bit architectures pumping out more data, customers will need a robust storage system with a large I/O pipe. Architectures such as Infiniband, a fibre technology designed as an alternative to Fibrechannel, are currently interesting users of 64-bit systems.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity to emerge for channel partners from 64-bit computing is the possibility of recompiling applications for the new architecture. Selling tin is one thing, but working to revamp software to make the best use of the processor is a more intricate task and one for which customers will pay well. The other big opportunity lies in infrastructure, where resellers can work with customers to upgrade storage and I/O assets to take advantage of a high-performance system with a large data output. That will be a tougher sale, as companies will want to use existing storage and are less likely to use a load-balancing cluster if they have a multi-processor 64-bit machine. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting customers to make the jump to 64-bit in the first place, when cash is tight. But one thing's for sure: with Alpha slowly on its way out, there's one less 64-bit architecture to choose from.