Canadian developers grade 64-bit Windows

A Montreal-based 3-D animation software developer says 64-bit computing technology offers a 10 per cent increase in its software’s rendering capabilities, allowing users to create scenes in minutes not hours.

Softimage Co., a subsidiary

of Avid Technology Inc., is currently working on the alpha version of its flagship digital content creation tool called Softimage XSI that will run on the 64-bit Windows client platform. Microsoft Corp. Monday announced at its annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference the availability of 64-bit editions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional, called Microsoft Windows Server x64 Editions and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. There are five server versions including standard, enterprise, data centre and two other versions for Intel’s Itanium systems.

Now instead of taking 22 hours to render a clip in 32-bit, it only takes eight minutes in 64-bit, said Mark Schoennagel, 3-D evangelist at Softimage, who is based in Los Angeles where the company works with computer animators in the movie industry. (Rendering refers to the process of sending each block or sequence of images from the desktop to server farms to create a clip for a movie or game, for example.) Softimage also targets its product at users in the gaming vertical like creators of Half Life 2 and commercial vertical like Toronto-based ad company Topix. Softimage has also worked on several campaigns in the U.S. including an ad featuring actor Burt Reynolds and a FedEx ad with a talking dog.

In addition to enhanced rendering capabilities, 64-bit technology also enables Softimage to streamline other time-consuming 3D animation tasks such as modeling and texturing, according to the company.

3-D gaming and video editing are among top 20 per cent of demanding client scenarios pushing the adoption of 64-bit computing, said Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates in Monday’s opening keynote. To illustrate how 64-bit stacks up against 32-bit applications in this area, Microsoft demoed the industry’s first 3-D application to fully port to 64-bit data called LightWave 3D developed by NewTek.

“The limits of 32-bit are forcing artists to make compromises,” said Jay Kenny, product manager, Windows group, Microsoft. “The 64-bit environment offers a much more realistic working environment.” In this particular demo, Kenny showed how 64-bit computing cut a three-month production cycle in a 32-bit environment down to seven days, cutting production time by two-thirds.

Increased memory support is one of the key performance benefits of the 64-bit architecture. Whereas a 32-bit system addresses 4 GB of addressable memory, a 64-bit system now addresses 16 terabytes of memory, for example. To take advantage of performance benefits, x64 users require a system with 64-bit drivers even if they are running 32-bit apps. With the OS out, hardware vendors like HP and Dell, which Monday announced it will start shipping x64 versions on its Precision workstation and PowerEdge server lines, are seizing the opportunity to drive adoption of 64-bit computing. Softimage, a Dell customer, is already using Precision workstations, which support up to 16 GB of memory, and the new Dell Precision 380 with the Intel Pentium Processor Extreme Edition — Intel’s first dual core platform which supports up to 8 GB of high speed memory.

Dell started shipping Intel Xeon servers last August following Intel’s release of the 64-bit processors a couple of months earlier. Monday’s announcement marks the first hardware platform vendor to start taking orders for x64, Darrel Ward, worldwide marketing manager for Precision workstations, said in an interview with ITBusiness.ca.

“Customers who use high performance platforms for workstations or servers value 64 bit much more than a regular desktop or notebook user,” said Ward. “Wherever customer demand shows the most value is where we’d go first.”

Outside of graphics, however, Microsoft partners like Toronto-based Navantis Inc., which develops relationship management, content management and business process solutions, don’t see a compelling need for 64-bit computing on the desktop yet.

“The technology is very mature,” said John Kvasnic company chief technology officer and co-founder. “The implications for anything that requires a lot of computational power like data warehousing and very high end graphics I think it’s going to basically change the world in those areas.”

While Navantis has a couple of people working with 64-bit Windows on the desktop, Kvasnic says there’s still plenty of power in the 32-bit platform. “Unless they’re doing something very intensive in terms of graphics, I don’t see a compelling need on the desktop. There isn’t the support in terms of the applications to take advantage.”

Windows exec declaws Tiger

On the Longhorn front, Microsoft group vice-president of platforms, Jim Allchin elaborated on some of the key points made in Gates’ keynote address Monday. Allchin outlined six pillars of Longhorn to press and analysts attending a media session starting with, “It just works.” The second pillar, safe and secure, referring to security in making the software more impenetrable to attack using technologies like “no execute security” and safety in letting the user decide how the system works.

After that, the software needs to be easy to deploy and manage, said Allchin, using a worldwide binary to make the number of software images more manageable. The fourth and fifth pillars deal with the client and business users experience in defining the terms of the user on the CPU for a particular task. On the server side, Allchin said there are less than 20 server roles including Web, Active Directory and DNS terminals as examples. “Once you’ve said your role, you don’t want software on your machine that can slow your systems down and make it vulnerable to attacks.”

Lastly, Longhorn will be the first Windows release since 2000 that offers independent hardware vendors a new set of APIs for programming software. “That’s why Longhorn is going to be such a big deal,” said Allchin.

Allchin also mentioned Longhorn’s visualization capabilities, which were demoed in Monday’s keynote by one of Gates’ colleagues. Asked about the similarities between Microsoft’s and Apple’s search tool in its upcoming OS X release called Tiger, Allchin replied: “Apple is a very innovative company. Microsoft goes beyond raw search with visualization capabilities that I don’t believe and know exist on Tiger today.” Allchin quipped that some Apple employees must have been attending the PDC 2003 conference where Microsoft debuted Longhorn’s features, including the visualization capabilities.

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