The 64-bit evolution

Eric Foote is considering 64-bit Windows servers for his growing base of 4,500 users. But he's in no big rush to make the shift from 32-bit computing. His first target application is Presentation Server 4.0 from Citrix Systems, thin-client software that performs most application processing on the server, sending only changes in the user interface to the client's PC.

"With the 64-bit technology, it looks like we can get 30 percent to 40 percent more users per server," says Foote, leader of both the Intel server and security groups at Detroit Medical Center.

"That helps keep our costs down from an infrastructure standpoint and a [software] licensing standpoint," he says, noting that his user base grows 20 percent each year.

Before moving to 64-bit, though, Foote is waiting for his hardware vendor, Hewlett-Packard, to release 64-bit blade servers at the right price and for his clinical information system -- Cerner Millennium from Cerner -- to be ported to 64-bit Windows. He's also waiting to see if older 32-bit applications will run as promised under 64-bit Windows and whether he'll have all the drivers he needs for his 64-bit environment.

Like Foote, many IT managers are adopting 64-bit Windows servers only for memory-starved applications such as thin-client software, large databases and some Web servers. For other uses, they're waiting for more 64-bit applications and for the 64-bit version of Microsoft's Vista server software, which is slated for release in 2007.

Evolution, not revolution

A 64-bit processor and software written for it (such as the operating system and applications) can process more data and can use larger amounts of memory than a 32-bit environment. Of those two improvements, the more important by far is the ability of 64-bit operating systems and processors to access as much as 16TB of memory, compared with 4GB for 32-bit Windows. While 64-bit servers based on proprietary microprocessors and operating systems have long run high-end transaction-processing and scientific applications, 64-bit computing has come slowly to Windows- and x86-compatible microprocessors.

It has been a year since Microsoft released Windows Server 2003 x64 Edition and three years since Advanced Micro Devices (followed by Intel) unveiled mainstream 64-bit x86-compatible microprocessors. But most IT managers responsible for mainstream business applications are moving cautiously to 64-bit Wintel platforms.

"The impact of 64-bit computing from [Intel and AMD's mainstream 64-bit processors] will be gradual at best," according to a September 2005 report from IDC. Because the processors can run many 32-bit applications without modification, the report said, "Customers can phase in 64-bit hardware now but adopt 64-bit at the software level when it makes the most sense."

The report predicts that the installed base of 64-bit Windows server operating systems will grow from 1.3 million worldwide in 2006 to 10.5 million in 2009 but notes that "the pivot point for x86 64-bit adoption comes as products based on the Vista code base enter mainstream availability." Even John Borozan, group product manager for the Windows Server group at Microsoft, acknowledges that "it's probably two to three years before [64-bit Windows] becomes a mainstream choice."

Microsoft has tried to jump-start the 64-bit software market, promising both 32- and 64-bit versions of the Vista operating system. It has also released 64-bit versions of popular software, most notably its SQL Server 2005 database.

SQL Server is a particularly good candidate for gains under 64-bit, says John Enck, an analyst at Gartner, with price/performance benefits so impressive "they could challenge SQL Server running on Intel Itanium for some database implementations."

With an estimated 50 percent of its Presentation Manager customers running into memory bottlenecks, Citrix has included both 32- and 64-bit support in its Presentation Server 4.0. Sumit Dhawan, director of product management, estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of Citrix's customers are evaluating 64-bit operating systems and that as many 80 percent of new customers are considering them.

The Koehler Group, a paper manufacturer in Oberkirch, Germany, has already seen the benefits of running its SAP R/3 manufacturing software and Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 in a 64-bit environment. The move in October 2003 cut database response time in half, from about 400msec per transaction to less than 200msec per transaction, says Karl Haas, director of Koehler's SAP Competency Center.

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