Unix: The 64-Bit Gold Standard

Many say it will be years before 64-bit Windows becomes a serious challenger.

Microsoft may be the behemoth of the software industry, dominating lucrative markets like desktop operating systems, productivity applications and application development tools, but there is one area where its influence is miniscule, not monstrous. It still lags behind in high-performance computing.

"For compute-intensive applications, medium and large companies still turn to Oracle running on a Unix server rather than SQL Server running on a PC server," says John Enck, a vice president at Gartner Inc.

An important reason for the continued performance delta between Unix and Windows is the former's superior support for 64-bit processing. In the Unix market, the migration to 64-bit computing has become routine. On the other hand, Windows still finds itself in a relatively embryonic stage of 64-bit computing. At the turn of the millennium, Microsoft made significant investments in this area, but they resulted in little to no progress. There are a handful of reasons for that.

"Microsoft has been trying to get software vendors to move to 64-bit computing, but most just haven't seen a compelling reason to do that," says Joe Clabby, president of market research firm Clabby Analytics.

Despite its lack of progress, Microsoft continues to throw research and development dollars at the high end of the computing market. SQL Server has operated with 64-bit processing for a few years, Vista comes in 32-bit and 64-bit modes, Exchange and other Windows Server 2007 products were built to run with 64-bit microprocessors, and the company is requiring that all third-party vendors deliver 64-bit versions of their products in order to gain Microsoft's blessing in the future.

While these steps should help Microsoft present a stronger case to Fortune 500 companies, observers expect many more years will pass before they rely on Windows for complex, back-end processing. "It took close to a decade for Microsoft to move Windows from 16-bit to 32-bit processing, and it looks like that will also be the case with its migration from 32-bit to 64-bit processing," says Gartner's Enck.

Performance Matters
In the heart of the data center, where high-performance applications reside, performance is king. And 64-bit processing flat out delivers more than 32-bit. The difference centers on how the system manipulates data. In the 32-bit world, you can place a maximum of 4GB of data in a computer's internal memory. Placing data in internal memory, as opposed to reading it from disk, improves performance because there are fewer input/output read/writes to disk subsystems. This takes significantly longer than working directly with the information.

A 64-bit system can work with up to 16TB of internal memory. Consequently, 64-bit systems address more memory faster and process more data per clock cycle. This greatly improves complex application performance.

In 2003, Microsoft released its Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition. Executives boldly discussed burrowing their way into the back-end of the data center. "I did expect faster adoption of 64-bit computing on Windows," notes Aaron Foint, Windows systems administrator at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "Right now, there are just not a lot of 64-bit applications available."

One necessary building block has fallen into place. Many servers (estimates range as high as 90 percent of all servers sold since 2006) can indeed run 64-bit applications, even though most now work with 32-bit operating systems, says Jason Hermitage, senior product manager at Microsoft.

The crooked path of Microsoft's 64-bit server strategy has been a problem, though. Initially, the company crafted Windows XP to run on Intel Corp.'s Itanium microprocessor line as its primary 64-bit platform. That may not have been the best choice.

"Application developers were unfamiliar with the Itanium processor," notes Brian Corcoran, manager of Windows host development at SAS Institute Inc.'s JMP division.

Compounding that drawback was application compatibility. The first few 64-bit versions of Windows didn't seamlessly support native 32-bit and 64-bit Windows applications. Because of this, Microsoft has been moving away from the Itanium architecture, which has its roots in the Unix market. It has instead focused on x64 microprocessors, which have a PC microprocessor foundation.

When Will 64-Bit Computing Arrive at the Desktop?

Like throwing a rock into the middle of the lake, moving to 64-bit computing starts at the heart of the data center and gradually ripples out to the edges of a company's network. The first ripple is evident. Hardware vendors have been delivering 64-bit servers for a few years, and a select number of applications now take advantage of that extra processing power.

Now it's clear that desktop hardware manufacturers are also getting ready for 64-bit processing. "Many desktop systems already come with 1GB of internal memory," notes Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at market research firm Insight 64.

Currently, it only costs a company a few hundred dollars to outfit a PC with 4GB of memory. This is currently 32-bit processing's upper threshold. Intense competition is expected to push memory pricing down and the amount of memory on these systems up. Therefore, in the next 12 to 18 months, a growing number of desktop systems will indeed be able to support 64-bit computing.

Microsoft laid the foundation for its movement to 64-bit computing at the desktop with Windows Vista, which supports both 32-bit and 64-bit processing. While the operating system is 64-bit-ready, few applications require that much bandwidth. High-end imaging, complex multimedia and financial-analysis applications are three that will lead the charge to this migration.

Any migration is yet to appear on the horizon, though. Servers can skirt limitations, like a lack of device drivers and infrastructure software, because they often operate in a closed environment, moving information from internal to external storage. Desktop computers need all the 64-bit accoutrements to be in place before they make the switch. So even though the 64-bit-processing rock has been dropped in the data center pond, its ripples are still a long way from reaching the desktop. -P.K.

Missing Pieces
Yet another hurdle is that the entire Windows ecosystem (software, peripherals and device drivers) needs to be rebuilt to take full advantage of 64-bit processors. For instance, a 32-bit DLL can't address memory space larger than 4GB, which a 64-bit processor does easily. Currently, 64-bit apparel for the Windows world is more of a fig leaf than a full wardrobe.

Device drivers for hardware peripherals, like scanners and printers, are hard to find. Few application-development tools have been rewritten to support 64-bit processing. Application infrastructure software, like vital anti-virus software, is also missing.

Because application development is such a chore, only companies that really need the extra processing power have taken on the challenge. The first wave of applications has included large database-management systems, decision-support and business-intelligence systems, medical applications like drug discovery and medical imaging, computer-aided design and-computer aided engineering, enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and supply chain management (SCM), video production and gaming-software design.

Cakewalk, which develops desktop music and sound software, is a true pioneer. It moved to 64-bit Windows in 2005. Because its software manipulates multimedia files, the extra processing power was desirable. Its migration did present a few challenges, however.

"In theory, moving to 64-bit computing should have been simple," says Noel Borthwick, chief technology officer at Cakewalk. "In reality, we ran into a few unexpected gotchas." Cakewalk found that many development tools rely on 32-bit, not 64-bit, algorithms to track code. Something as simple as inserting a pointer to tell an application where to locate data became a cumbersome programming task.

Database management systems (DBMSes) are an area where 64-bit computing is taking root. If a company can place an entire database in memory and process a query without having to read it from a disk, then it can provide significantly faster results.

In 2006, Gainesville State College (GSC) in Gainesville, Ga., which has 7,500 students and 750 faculty and staff, decided to upgrade to the 64-bit version of SQL Server. After sorting through some pesky problems, like getting its 32-bit applications and 64-bit applications to work harmoniously on the server, the college found that the 64-bit technology delivered a significant performance boost, according to Brandon Haag, executive director of IT.

GSC, which relies solely on Microsoft software, has been testing Exchange Server 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007. The goal is to have them fully operational by the end of the year. This rollout represents a few of several steps that Microsoft is taking to prod its customer base and third-party supporters to move to 64-bit computing. Starting in 2008, independent software vendors will need to deliver 64-bit versions of their apps in order to earn Microsoft's certification.

Skeptics Reign Supreme
Even with those moves, many remain skeptical of using Windows to support complex applications. Although Windows will have 64-bit capabilities, it lacks other needed features. "Reliability is a key function for high-performance applications. Users don't want their systems going down," says Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for market research firm Insight 64. Unix systems are more resilient than PC servers because they support features like hot failovers, where transactions are completed even during an outage.

Personnel requirements are another obstacle. While there are oodles of Microsoft-certified engineers sitting in IT department cubicles, the number of them that actually understand how to deploy and support complex high-end applications is relatively low. Consequently, Microsoft professionals will need knowledge transfers from more experienced Unix systems administrators. It's unclear how much help these individuals may be, however. In some cases, they may push their enterprises toward Linux alternatives and away from Windows.

Inertia appears to be still another force working against Microsoft. "Large companies are extremely cautious with their key applications," explains Clabby Analytics' Clabby. "They won't move to a new computing platform unless something is tried and true and offers them compelling economic advantages."

To date, Windows simply hasn't given them a good reason to make that change. While Microsoft has dominated many other markets, the back-end of the data center is one area where the company is now -- and will remain for at least a few more years -- a persona non grata.

About the Author

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer based in Sudbury, Mass. He has been writing about networking issues for two decades, and his work has appeared in Business 2.0, Entrepreneur, Investors Business Daily, Newsweek and Information Week.


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