Beta Man

When I'm 64

Get ready to upgrade to Win2003 x64.

To say "64-bit computing is here" is a bit misleading. Actually, 64-bit computing has been with us for some time. Perhaps the most visible proof of this is Intel's Itanium family of 64-bit processors, which introduced a whole new computing architecture and required a special version of Windows (available in the Win2000 family).

However, the Itanium never became as popular as even the DEC Alpha processor, which wasn't exactly a bestseller, despite its technological merits. HP recently dropped out of Itanium development, leaving the processor's future (or at least its market viability) in question.

Then AMD snuck in from the sidelines with its AMD64 architecture. Many computers are now running Athlon64 processors in 32-bit mode that are completely compatible with existing 32-bit applications. Users and administrators may not even realize they have a 64-bit processor lurking under the hood and waiting to be unleashed.

Windows Server 2003 x64
Version reviewed: RC2
Current status: RC2
Expected release:
Sometime in 2005

The marketability of the AMD64 architecture got a big boost when Intel jumped on board with its own compatible version, the EM64T. Generically referred to as x64, this platform will see its first full-fledged 64-bit version of the Windows server operating system this year when Windows Server 2003 x64 ships.

Cosmetically, Win2003 x64 is identical to its 32-bit cousin. In fact, if you weren't paying attention, you might not realize you're running a 64-bit OS at all, which is exactly the point. Your Windows experience will be identical on either platform. The 64-bit processor simply packs a bigger punch, paving the way for 64-bit applications and the eventual demise of the 32-bit platform. (While Microsoft has committed to shipping Longhorn for both 32- and 64-bit platforms, the market may only be interested in a 64-bit version of whatever follows Longhorn.)

Technically Speaking
Naturally, Win2003 x64 requires an x64 processor. It supports the AMD Opteron, Intel Xeon EM64T and Intel Pentium EM64T processors. You need at least 512MB of RAM and 4GB of disk space. The Enterprise Edition of Win2003 x64 supports up to eight processors while the Standard Edition supports four. You'll also need your processor running at 1.4GHz for the Opteron, 2.8GHz for the Xeon or 3.2GHz for the Pentium. If you're using Intel processors, Microsoft recommends a 3.6GHz Xeon or Pentium.

Beta Man's
Routine Disclaimer:
The software described here is incomplete and still under development; expect it to change before its final release—and hope it changes for the better.

Memory-wise, you can plug in up to a whopping 32GB on Standard Edition. The Enterprise Edition supports an unbelievable 1TB of RAM. (Remember when Bill Gates told us 640KB was enough memory for anyone?) The real power of the x64 architecture is that it runs 32-bit applications seamlessly. The Itanium runs 32-bit apps in a WOW64 subsystem, which provided fairly lackluster performance in most situations. Therefore, x64 makes a more compelling argument for phased migration to 64-bit computing.

The 64-bit version of Windows does pretty much everything 32-bit does—Active Directory stores can exceed 2GB in size, Terminal Services are present and so on. It's pretty much indistinguishable from 32-bit Windows, except in one critical area—performance.

While you can never judge the performance of an operating system from beta or even release candidate code, 64-bit Windows is already remarkably faster than 32-bit Windows. My testing shows that a 64-bit application running on 64-bit Windows is several times faster than the same application's 32-bit version running on 32-bit Windows. All of this software was in beta, so I'm not revealing specific numbers (in fact, the beta licensing agreement forbids it), but suffice it to say, the difference is profound.

Application compatibility was seamless. I installed several 32-bit applications, including SQL Server and Internet Security and Acceleration Server, and they all ran without a hitch (Exchange Server doesn’t allow itself to run on x64 Edition, however). That's an important feature, because many application vendors are not likely to release 64-bit versions in the near future. For its part, Microsoft will probably ship 64-bit versions of its major server products, especially SQL Server, in fairly short order.

The open source world isn't sitting still on the 64-bit issue. There have been stable x64-compatible builds of Linux available for some time now. At http://snipurl.com/dl82, you'll find a comparison of Intel and AMD x64 processors running the Gentoo x64 build of Linux. Red Hat also has x64-compatible and Itanium-compatible builds (lest you think that platform was Windows-specific).

Don't Forget XP
Microsoft is also releasing Windows XP x64, which will support the Athlon64 processor in addition to Opteron and Intel EM64T processors.

I'm not going to get into the whole Windows/Linux debate. I'm simply making the point that Microsoft is neither the only x64 OS on the planet nor is it leading the charge. The existence of competition from Linux on x64 processors is further evidence of the platform's market viability.

It's a pretty safe bet for any business to go ahead and purchase x64-based systems. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that any future purchases should always be x64-based systems. With the end of the 32-bit computing platform so clearly in sight, purchasing 32-bit systems doesn't seem like a sound financial investment.

64-bit Is Here to Stay
Choosing the x64 platform is pretty much a no-brainer. It's where computing is headed. Its compatibility with existing applications makes it an easy choice for new purchases starting even now. Even if you don't plan to install an x64-specific operating system, x64 systems can continue to run what you already have in place.

Once Win2003 x64 ships, however, there will be little reason (other than perhaps price, which has yet to be announced) not to upgrade. Your applications will continue to run, the look and feel of the operating system won't change, and you won't need additional training. You'll get improved performance and the ability to immediately upgrade applications to 64-bit as versions become available. Given how touch-and-go past computing revolutions have been (remember the awkwardness involved in moving from Windows 3.x to Windows 95?), the x64 move feels stress-free and simple.

Wanted: Betas for Review
Beta Man is always on the lookout for quality products to review. If you know of a software product that is currently or soon to be in beta, contact Beta Man at don@scriptinganswers.com. Vendors are welcome, but please act early—the meticulous Beta Man needs plenty of lead time.

Microsoft has committed to the 32-bit platform through Longhorn at least, so your existing investments are already protected. Assuming every 32-bit server you have today is capable of running Longhorn (which remains to be seen—minimum system requirements haven't been announced, but they're certain to be steep), you can continue to mix 32-bit and x64 systems in your environment while running a consistent operating system across the board. Since the next version of Windows after Longhorn is probably six years or more down the line, it's a safe bet that your existing 32-bit hardware resources will be fully depreciated and ready for replacement by then, meaning 32-bit computing will die of natural causes and be replaced by x64.

I'll make it simple—64-bit is here to stay and it looks like x64 is going to be the platform to which we all gradually migrate over the next few years. Microsoft's introduction of an x64 version of Windows was all but inevitable, and future versions of Windows (including Longhorn and beyond) will be available for this new platform.

The migration is painless. Just install Win2003 x64 and you're up and running with no additional learning curve, no application compatibility issues that I saw and noticeably enhanced performance.

Microsoft is betting the bank on x64. The recently announced Windows Compute Cluster Edition will only support x64 processors, not 32-bit and not Itanium. Part of Microsoft's High Performance Computing (HPC) for Windows Server 2003 initiative, Windows Compute Cluster Edition will cluster relatively inexpensive servers in parallel-processing configurations designed for massively better performance than single machines achieve today. Look for a formal beta of the HPC edition sometime in late 2005 (it's based on the Win2003 SP1 codebase).

Start inventorying your servers to find out which ones already have x64 processors hiding in them, and get ready to upgrade to Win2003 x64. You'll be glad you did.

More Information

Follow these links to learn more about the Opteron processor and Intel's EM64T architecture:

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