64 Bit-Computing Moves to the Fore

The move to 64-bit computing has been hyped for years now. As we head into 2008, the hype may have died down, but the reality is starting to sink in for IT shops: move away from the 32-bit town, and into the 64-bit city, or get left behind.

This is especially true for businesses that are predominantly Microsoft-based. Slowly but surely, Microsoft is weaning customers away from pre-64-bit environments, first on the server side, but also on the desktop.

The loudest announcement of this shift came when Microsoft rolled out Exchange Server 2007. Released in late 2006 to business customers, Exchange 2007 runs only on 64-bit versions of Windows Server -- both Windows Server 2003 and the upcoming Windows Server 2008. It was Microsoft's first-ever 64-bit only product.

And although both of those versions of Windows Server have both 32-bit and 64-bit options, Windows Server 2008, codenamed Longhorn Server, will only have the lower-level option available in its first iteration. Ward Ralston, senior technical product manager in the Windows Server division, has confirmed that the mid-cycle update of Windows Server 2008, known as Windows Server 2008 R2 and scheduled for release sometime in 2009, will be 64-bit only.

Ralston doesn't feel that will be a problem for most of Microsoft's customers. In fact, he believes that they're already moving in that direction, and points to downloads of the beta 3 version of Windows 2008 as evidence. "We're incredibly pleased with the x64 instances being installed," he says, adding that he's seen more 64-bit installations than 32-bit installations with the Windows 2008 beta. "The industry is going that way. With Windows 2008, we're really going to see a shift to 64-bit," he says.

The shift will be slower for the desktop, but that is also happening. Windows Vista was released in both flavors, and since Vista and Windows 2008 share the same codebase, there has been speculation that since Windows 2008 R2 will be 64-bit only, that the next Windows client will follow the same path. In July, however, Microsoft laid those rumors to rest when it announced that Vista's successor, tentatively called "Windows 7" and slated for release in 2010, will still be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit iterations. This is likely due to a number of reasons:

  • The consumer market tends to be slower to adopt newer technology
  • Most non-business applications are still written for 32-bit processors
  • The need for computing power is much less severe for desktop computers than servers

But the last rationale, about the lower power requirements, is also shifting. The rise of video usage on the Internet, for example, leads to the need for video editing programs, which can benefit from 64-bit power. Virtualization, too, is sliding down from the server world down into the desktop one, and can take advantage of the beefier processors.

Still, the growth area remains largely on the server end. Michael Goldstein of LAN Associates, a Long Island, NY-based network integration company, believes 64-bit is the future, and steers his customers in that direction. He said he tells them, "You're going to buy new iron at some point. Do you want to be at the latest and greatest [i.e., 64-bit level]? Do you want to be one version behind, or do you want to put it in place?"

That strategy matches what most Microsoft customers do, according to Microsoft's Ralston: "Ninety percent of our customers do upgrades on hardware refreshes."

The move to 64-bit will also smooth the path to Windows Server Virtualization, one of the most-anticipated features of Windows 2008. With its ability to consolidate servers onto many fewer physical machines, greatly increasing efficiency, virtualization is becoming perhaps the hottest IT server technology. For proof, look no further than VMWare Inc., the Palo Alto, Calif.-based virtualization specialist, which saw its stock value jump by nearly 76 percent on the first day of trading following its IPO in August.

Virtualization is one key driver for 64-bit. Others include increased scalability, greater efficiency and huge speed increases. All those reasons are why George LaVenture of Trinity Consulting, a Marlborough, Mass.-based firm which offers architecture, design and implementation services, is trying to educate his customers on the necessity of making the leap. "One thing we're all looking to do is move people like we did a half-decade ago from 16-bit to 32-bit desktop," LaVenture says.

"We're beginning to see the leap into the next level of technology," he adds. "Leveraging 64-bit platforms is going to be important, [and so is] eradicating legacy platforms. I think there's some true value there."

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.