64-bit by bit

TORONTO – The combination of increased server utilization, multi-core processing and open source software is finally starting to push Canadian enterprises towards 64-bit computing, experts told a conference Wednesday.

As part of a half-day series of presentations hosted by consulting

company Scalar Decisions, IDC Canada analyst Alan Freedman said 22 per cent of firms surveyed by the research firm plan to spend more on servers, particularly in the financial services industry. Most of that growth is happening in the low end of the market, while 27 per cent are planning to purchase or are already using blade servers. High-performance or mid-range servers, meanwhile, will be replaced by volume servers at better price/performance metrics, which is also driving the adoption of technologies such as virtualization and grid computing, he said.

Based on faster access to memory and other benefits, Freedman projected that most x86 servers will be 64-bit by 2009, though he said users still have some concerns about making the shift.

“They’re telling us that they’re worried applications won’t be re-coded for 64-bit platforms,” he said. “When you’ve made that kind of investments in your apps you don’t want to replace them each time you do a (server) upgrade.”

The 32-bit server market isn’t going away anytime soon, however. While hardware vendors such as Sun Microsystems and HP – along with processor firms such as AMD and Intel – have been touting the potential of 64-bit computing for years, the market has not moved as quickly as expected, Freedman explained. According to Harlan McGhan, Sun’s senior staff engineer, that’s one of the reasons the company found itself rethinking its server strategy a few years ago.

“The thought was that Itanium would put 32-bit out of business,” he said, referring to Intel’s 64-bit processor for high-end systems. “It seemed questionable that we would make a big investment in that area.”

Instead, Sun concentrated on its own UltraSparc line of processors, but more recently it has partnered with AMD to include 64-bit Opterons in a wide variety of machines, he said. Operton is known for being backwards-compatible with 32-bit applications and operating systems. AMD, like Intel, is also offering dual-core chips that essentially put two “brains” on a single CPU, which can increase a server’s ability to perform tasks in parallel.

Mike Rosenstein, a business development executive with AMD based in New Jersey, noted that it barely took 10 years for the industry to move from eight-bit computing to 32-bit by 1985, but it’s taking almost 20 for the 64-bit leap. That’s because in many cases, those servers experience bottlenecks in the chip-to-chip interconnect that create performance bottlenecks, negating some of the benefits, he said. AMD’s approach has been to use a technology it calls HyperTransport, which is a computer bus that can speed data transfer between the main memory and the CPU, and lower latency.

Some AMD chips include several HyperTransport links, while Itanium, Rosenstein said, has to share a system bus. This is kind of thing IT managers factor in when they are making their purchasing decisions, he added.

“Everyone was wondering why no one’s moving to 64-bit computing, and the problem is that no one was offering a seamless transition from 32 to 64-bit,” he said.

Operton, said McGhan, has “allowed us to take spare parts and turn them into a Ferrari,” creating systems that reduce the cost of computing while boosting throughput. The company has also broadened its reach in the OS space, working with a number of Linux distributions and even helping customers run Windows on its products if they choose.

According to Freedman, Linux remains the fastest-growing platform in the server space. An IDC Canada survey showed 25.3 per cent of enterprises are running Linux in volume servers, and 94 per cent said they were not worried about the threat of legal action from vendors such as SCO, which claims a patent over parts of the Linux kernel. “That’s been a big tactic used by Microsoft,” he said, “but it didn’t seem to be ringing true.”

The rise in open source comes as little surprise to Red Hat, said vice-president Philip Carty, adding that the company has seen Linux move beyond its start in entry-level boxes to bigger machines.

“The analogy we like to use is, Microsoft gives you the car, but the hood is closed – you can’t get into it,” he said. “You can’t underestimate the value of all those eyes on the code from developers around the world.”

McGhan said Sun will be testing the market’s appetite for more advanced infrastructure products by launching a 32-way server on a single chip, which he described as a “data centre in a shoebox.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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