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Size matters in computing and doubling the size of the underlying architecture of microprocessors from 32 bit to 64 bit inevitably means bigger and faster computers. But do we need them?

In terms of raw technology, 64 bit computers can address far more direct memory and process much larger instructions than the current 32 bit systems. A computer based on a 32 bit architecture can address up to four gigabytes of memory – while a 64 bit system can, theoretically, address about 18m gigabytes.

Back-end server computers have increasingly used an expensive version 64 bit technology for the past decade. But the 64 bit revolution is now making inroads into the mass market. Earlier this year, Microsoft released the first 64 bit version of its Windows XP desktop operating system and Intel announced a 64 bit microprocessor – the EM64T. Rival AMD also has low cost 64 bit Opteron microprocessors in production.

These advances lower the entry barrier for 64 bit computing. The end result for computer users is the possibility of high powered computing at mass market prices. Applications that benefit from the extra power include large database applications, multimedia, modelling, simulation and complex risk calculations.

“It means smaller companies can get large, expensive applications they could not afford before. Large database products such as Oracle and IBM’s DB2 are 64 bit compatible and with the new low cost 64 bit technology they can get mainframe levels of performance,” says Michael Hjalsted, server marketing director for Europe at server-builder Unisys.

He goes on to say, however, that software – particularly application software is still catching up with the hardware advances: “Just running a 64 bit computer is not enough. The operating system and the application software need to be changed to gain the full benefit.”

Unisys, like its rivals in the server market, has spotted the potential for low cost 64 bit computing and begun to build a range of server products based on the technology. Other manufacturers such as IBM and Hewlett Packard are also offering server systems based on low-cost 64 bit technology from Intel and AMD, alongside their proprietary 64 bit systems.

The change to 64 bit could be tricky. When the world moved from 16 bit to 32 bit systems in the mid 1990s, it took a few years for applications software to take advantage of the new hardware. Software developers including Microsoft and Oracle had to maintain compatibility across both architectures. The same problem will probably delay development of 64 bit applications.

The transition is further complicated by two streams of 64 bit technology emerging from Intel. It launched its high end Itanium 64 bit processor in the early 1990s and still continues to develop this product. The Itanium is not backwards compatible with 32 bit systems. The EM64T is a development of Intel’s 32 bit Pentium processor technology and can operate in both 32 bit and 64 bit modes – but it is not compatible with the Itanium.

“Software developers will have to make a conscious decision to go to Itanium. Some specialised applications will be able to take advantage of the performance. Database systems using SQL server, for example. But Intel is saddling itself with a positioning challenge and could find it difficult to maintain interest in Itanium,” says Andy Butler, a server group vice-president at researcher Gartner.

“The Unix migration market will also stimulate 64 bit development but that is more likely to be based on Linux than on Windows,” he adds.

The open source Linux operating system is increasingly being seen as a way forward for organisations currently using the ageing Unix operating system.

[Unisys notes that a growing number of its customers are taking this path:

”About five per cent of our customers are using Linux and 10-15 per cent of those are now on 64-bit systems. We expect this to keep rising,” says Mr Hjalsted of Unisys.

A 64-bit version of Linux was released at the end of 2004 and it is widely expected that this will appeal to a growing number of Unix users looking for a way forward. The combination of lower software costs and lower processor costs will be hard to resist.

Linux will also have an impact on the desktop market - although it is unlikely to eclipse Microsoft’s continuing dominance. ]

Software applications are the key to progress for 64 bit on the desktop, however. The demand for smooth graphical user interfaces, for example, helped the push from 16 bit to 32 bit. A comparable “killer application” will force the pace to move to 64 bit – eventually.

Meanwhile, businesses will need to start planning for the transition. Researcher Gartner sees this beginning at the end of 2005 and expects 64 bit computing to be mainstream by 2007.

“The new 64 bit chips enable customers to move from 32 bit computing at their own pace. IT departments do not want two different populations of users – one on 32 bit and the other on 64 bit,” explains Tikiri Wandragalla, a server consultant at IBM.

He sees the first wave of 64 bit applications emanating from specialist developers: “It is about finding the sweet spot for application programming – those tasks that stretch 32 bit hardware. The software stack is moving to lower cost computers and niche players in areas such as multimedia will see the opportunities of the increased power.”

Mainstream software developers are also taking up the 64 bit cause. Martin Tenk head of technology at SAP UK sees scope to use 64 bit power to improve applications software: “We think 64 bit technology is great because of the performance advantages. In analytical applications and large complex queries it really makes a difference.”

He adds that the main advantages are likely to be in server computers: “Microsoft’s 64 bit XP operating system is good for the user – but the real power is in analysing large queries and high performance business analytics. You can look at vast amounts of data.”

Later this year, Microsoft is expected to release a 64 bit version of its Visual Studio – the main development tool for Windows applications. This will stimulate migration of applications to 64 bit and create opportunities for new products which can use the extra power.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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