64-bit still in the distance for the client

Scott Stanley, the library’s information technology manager, expects to need the added power over the next couple of years. As for 64-bit computing on the client, though, “we’re just beginning to look at it.”

The Toronto District School Board is testing 64-bit servers because a few demanding applications require more memory than a 32-bit processor can address. “Because of our large number of users, we need a larger footprint for the memory,” said Jey Jeyarajan, the board’s senior manager of information technology

As these examples suggest, 64-bit technology is making inroads first on the server, mainly because it handles more memory.

While the length of memory address a 32-bit processor can process limits it to four gigabytes of memory, a 64-bit chip with twice as many bits can address exponentially more memory – 16 exabytes, or 16 billion gigabytes, to be precise (though existing operating systems impose lower limits). That seems today like more than anyone will ever need, but some machines require more than four gigabytes now.

From a hardware point of view, 64-bit computing is already widespread. Most processors that Intel Corp. sells today and all Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s products use 64-bit architecture. Server and PC makers have adopted those chips widely.

The catch is software. There are 64-bit versions of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional operating systems, but they are not as widely installed as the 64-bit chips they are designed to run on. There is also a 64-bit version of Windows Vista, which may help move 64-bit adoption forward.

Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent consulting firm in Kirkland, Wash., identifies two reasons why 64-bit is happening faster on the server than on the client. First, servers have more need of the extra power and memory space 64-bit designs provide.

Toromont Industries Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., uses 64-bit Windows 2003 Enterprise for its main SQL Server environment.

“The best performing solution for that data was to be housed and running in a 64-bit environment,” said Bradley White, manager of distributed computing. But, he said, “today there is no application on the client side which necessitates running in a 64-bit environment.”

The other major obstacle to switching to a 64-bit operating system is the need to update drivers for hardware and peripheral devices. This is less complicated on servers than on desktop machines, Cherry said, because servers tend to be dedicated to one or two functions and have fewer peripheral devices and add-ons requiring driver updates.

In November, Microsoft announced that the next release of its Exchange Server software will only be offered in a 64-bit version.

Cherry believes Microsoft and other vendors will probably go entirely 64-bit with most server products before long. With server hardware migrating to 64-bit fairly quickly and with fewer obstacles to upgrading, he said, it will make sense for server software developers to make the switch.

Those developing for the client, on the other hand, will probably hold back. They don’t want to support both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of applications, Cherry said, and the pain of the transition will deter many customers from moving, so 32-bit software will probably remain prevalent on the desktop for a while yet.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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