Product Review: 64-bit update

In the year since US Computerworld last reviewed 64-bit processors, not a lot has changed. Intel Corp is still working on its own 64-bit chip, called the IA-64. In the meantime, existing makers of 64-bit chips have been cranking up their offerings and improving their operating systems to keep their customers happy.

The 64-bit processor provides a lot more space to handle data and complete complex calculations. On 32-bit chips like the Intel Pentium, some data must be pushed off the chip to accomplish incoming requests, which makes the computer slower at certain tasks as the chip shuffles data back and forth to get everything done.

So applications that require heavy calculations and data movement, such as data warehouses, 3D modelling, scientific formulas, high-resolution graphics and transaction processing, can be hindered when run on 32-bit processors.

Internet-based technologies, including video streaming, voice traffic and movies, which require huge chunks of processing time, have also been driving the need for 64-bit processors on internet servers.

The 64-bit chip promises to help in this regard because the amount of space that's available isn't just twice as much as the space on a 32-bit chip, it's also an order of magnitude higher -- well beyond the needs of desktop applications these days. For example, Intel says the IA-64 processor it's currently developing includes eight times as many registers as a typical Pentium chip, and a typical 64-bit file can be up to four billion times larger than a 32-bit file.

That's a lot of data to have readily accessible in the main memory of the processor. As a result, the processor doesn't have to call out to other areas of computer memory to get information or go get the information from the slowest locations -- hard and floppy disk drives.

But because all this extra room will only be used if operating systems and software applications are developed to run on 64-bit systems, most 64-bit chips will find their way into large servers, not desktops. One reason is that many versions of the Unix operating system that run on large servers are already made to run on 64-bit processors. But Windows and its applications aren't yet 64-bit ready.

With its IA-64 chip, Intel is the latest company to create a 64-bit processor, following in the footsteps of IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment (now Compaq Computer). Intel has promised the chip for the past few years, and its development has created a broader interest in 64-bit computing among users.

The IA-64 processor is creating a stir by offering to run both Windows and Unix applications and provide a more cost-effective path for desktop users to get 64-bit technology, whereas most 64-bit chips on the market today are targeted at high-end server uses. The chip makers usually tweak the processor to work best with their own servers and operating systems to get the best performance out of the applications. Most of these vendors have been shipping 64-bit processors for two years.

To date, this method has worked fine with users who require a powerful punch for their applications. For example, Dean McCarron, a principal at Mercury Research in Scottsdale, Arizona, says that if a site with 100,000 users on a specific application moves to a 64-bit processor and gains 10 per cent more space, it could add another 10,000 users to the application without any performance loss.

But the legions of desktop users are another matter. Typical desktop applications simply don't need the power of 64-bit computing and would leave all the extra space on a 64-bit processor sitting idle, analysts say.

In other words, throwing your copy of Microsoft's Office or Lotus 1-2-3 onto a 64-bit processor wouldn't result in any performance gains at all -- at least until those applications become so huge and complex that they need 64-bit technology to excel.

"For most end users, they won't actually see 64-bit processors in the next five years or so," McCarron says.

IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts, predicts that adoption of 64-bit processors for the desktop will be slow because information technology decision-makers normally purchase the least-expensive system that will perform the desired function on the desktop.

The current crop of 32-bit processors does that quite well at a lower price than 64-bit technology, McCarron notes. In fact, Pentium chips also contain some of the same parallel technology used in the upcoming IA-64 processor, making them a much better deal for the desktop for years to come.

But for existing 64-bit users and companies seeking extra processor power for their huge applications and databases, the move by Intel could be a good thing, as other vendors crank their own 64-bit processors up to new heights.

Ouellette is a freelance writer in Scarborough, MaineDefinitionA 64-bit chip is a processor that runs a computer by using 64 bits of addressing space. That means the chip can handle 64 bits of data at a time, compared with the 32 bits of data managed by processors in desktop PCs. There's essentially more room for data to be moved, and it can be moved more efficiently and faster, resulting in faster computer performance.

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