Out of the courtroom and away from the world's stock markets, this year has not been a bad one for Microsoft, with Windows 2000 being generally well received and even winning over some sceptics. The Boston-based Aberdeen Group, previously a thorn in Microsoft's side, has reversed its stance, and stated in a recent report that Windows 2000 exhibited "outstanding levels of reliability and availability", and could now be considered a platform for serious enterprise-level applications.
Yet the same report identified the missing ingredients that would need to be rectified in future versions of the operating system. The three principal requirements cited by early adopters of Windows 2000 interviewed by the Aberdeen Group were for 64-bit addressing, better tools for change management and support for greater scalability within a single box.
The latter is needed to make it easier to scale up servers for data warehousing and e-commerce applications. Adding machines to a cluster can do this, but then considerable effort in re-tuning and load balancing is required to achieve optimum performance and levels of availability.
It is much less disruptive and more reliable if a system can be expanded simply by adding a new processor node within a single, tightly-coupled chassis.
Microsoft has already gone some way to rectifying the deficiency in this department in the recently, launched Windows 2000 Datacenter for enterprise-level applications. Whereas the Windows 2000 Advanced Server, announced in February, will only support up to eight processors per chassis, in the datacentre versions this is increased to 32.
There is a little way to go to catch up with the Sun Solaris platform, which can support 64-way servers. So while Intel-based servers running Windows 2000 easily beat Solaris on price, when configurations of comparable performance are compared, the latter can still scale to parts the former cannot reach.
But this may change when the 64-bit version of Windows is available. This is based on Intel's forthcoming Itanium 64-bit processor, to be launched in September. Sun beat Microsoft by almost two years with its 64-bit version of Solaris, but as Barry Walker, regional director for northern Europe of Unix supplier SCO points out, there is more to a processor than the number of bits it can address.
"Intel will be bringing its volume economics to bear on the 64-bit architecture space, which most in the industry believe will win over in the end," says Walker.
Itanium also embodies two fundamental new technologies likely to boost performance substantially (see box top right).
The principal advantage of 64-bit addressing is that applications can directly access much larger amounts of main memory, greater than 4Gbytes. This will not yet affect the bulk of existing mid-range applications, but there are a number of new ones in database querying, Internet-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) and e-commerce, where memory access is now a handicap.
There are also some applications that call for the greater speed of 64-bit processors, notably software-based cryptography, which is a fast-growing requirement for a great many e-commerce applications, as Intel's server group strategic manager Alan Priestley points out. With the growth of Internet-based applications there is increasing demand for software-based cryptography, he says, because this enables algorithms to be changed rapidly to increase security as required. The snag is this sucks performance from the general-purpose processor, as cryptography has no dedicated hardware.
"With Itanium, however, these security algorithms will execute much more rapidly, making software-based cryptography feasible," Priestley adds.
Development of 64-bit Windows is very closely tied to Itanium. The objective is to launch 64-bit Windows soon after Itanium, according to Microsoft's Windows product marketing manager Nicholas McGraph, who points out that the two have evolved very much in parallel.
Priestley says such parallel development was essential because to achieve optimal performance on Itanium, the operating system had to be designed to exploit some of the architectural features of the chip to a much greater extent than with 32-bit processors.
The other necessary improvement on Windows 2000 is in change management support and facilitating roll-back to the previous state when implementing software upgrades. Microsoft has pledged to introduce tools to support roll-back and roll-forward in the next version of Windows.
Apart from the technology itself, there is also the question of skillsespecially given the much greater complexity of Windows 2000. Microsoft is tackling this, says McGraph, through its Windows Datacenter programme, which is more about people and processes than technology.
The key aspect of this project is Microsoft's collaboration with 12 leading IT system suppliers including IBM, Unisys, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Dell, Hitachi and EMC, to facilitate tight coupling of Windows 2000 with the underlying hardware, and also to provide common support. "We're providing single points of contact by building joint support teams with these vendors," says McGraph.
The success of Windows 2000 depends as much on these alliances as on the technology itself.
Principal 64-bit initiatives
There are several Risc architectures that already support 64-bit addressing, including Hewlett-Packard's PA-Risc, Sun's Ultrasparc, Compaq's Alpha and IBM's PowerPC. All these run a version of 64-bit Unix, but Sun is unique in focusing solely on its own processor architecture. All the others to a greater or lesser extent are downplaying their own Risc architectures to focus increasingly on Intel's forthcoming Itanium 64-bit processor, otherwise known as IA-64.
HP has declared that the future of computing lies with Itanium. This statement is not unconnected with the fact that it co-designed the processor with Intel.
Several suppliers have teamed up with SCO to develop a 64-bit version of Unix for IA-64 in a project called Monterey. This version is designed to exploit performance features of IA-64, notably Explicit Parallel Instruction Computing (Epic), and predication. Epic relies heavily on the co-operation of the compilers used by both operating systems and applications to generate machine code instructions to optimise performance. The idea is that compilers generate instructions that can be executed in parallel by the IA-64 processor. For this reason Intel has co-operated with suppliers of operating systems and applications in developing IA-64, so that when it is launched in the autumn it will come with a ready supply of software.
Predication avoids delays caused by branches in instruction sets. Previously processors attempted to minimise delays at branches by predicting which course to take. This was fine if the prediction was correct, but still incurred delays if it was wrong. Predication avoids the delays at branches altogether by looking ahead and executing all possible branches. Many contemporary applications involve code with frequent branches, so these will benefit from Intel's predication.
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