64-Bit Computing On The Launchpad

The long-awaited era of 64-bit computing finally may be here. Intel last week introduced a line of 64-bit Xeon processors for the multiprocessor-server market that sets a new level of computing performance and is expected to launch a wave of software development to take advantage of the greater speed the processors provide.


The Xeon MP processors complete Intel’s conversion of its server-processor portfolio to 64-bit capabilities, with the Itanium processor at the high end. Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s 64-bit Opteron processors have been available for two years. Intel’s Xeon MP and AMD’s Opteron provide the foundation for a transition from the x86 standard to a new 64-bit computing market. Intel and the major computer makers are even changing their nomenclature, using "x64" to describe 64-bit chips that run the x86 instruction set. Intel’s Itanium chip handles 64 bits at a time but doesn’t run x86 instructions natively.


Perhaps even more important than the chip announcement was confirmation from Microsoft last week that its long-awaited Windows Server 2003 64-bit Edition is near completion and that a formal introduction can be expected as soon as next month.


"That’s the gun that starts the race," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64. Once there’s a 64-bit version of Windows Server, "then we’ll also start to see all of the utilities and infrastructure applications being moved over to 64 bits."


That’s a change eagerly anticipated by Wayne Myers, IT director and network administrator for law firm Hooper, Lundy & Bookman Inc. "Now that Microsoft is on board, we’re just waiting for the other software applications to come around," he says. "As all the legal software is ported to 64-bit operation, it will speed up pretty much everything we do across the network." The California firm, which specializes in health-care law, runs Windows on ProLiant servers from Hewlett-Packard for a variety of applications and Microsoft’s SQL Server.


Myers expects significant performance gains when he tests new HP server systems using the Xeon MP processors running 64-bit-capable software over the next three to six months. "It’s like having an eight-cylinder car, then putting a 16-cylinder engine in it," he says. "Just think of the power difference. Our data will process at a faster rate because basically we’ll have more ‘doors’ to get the information through to the processor."


Proponents of 64-bit computing have been anxiously awaiting Microsoft’s release of a 64-bit server operating system since AMD introduced its Opteron processor in April 2003 and Intel unveiled plans to extend its Xeon line to include 64-bit operations. Business-technology managers have been able to run 64-bit versions of the Solaris and Linux operating systems on 64-bit chips. But Windows remains dominant, and independent software developers who write Windows apps have been waiting for the Microsoft move before converting their software. Details of the release of Windows Server 2003 64-bit edition will be disclosed at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, scheduled for April 25-27 in Seattle, Andy Lees, corporate VP for Microsoft’s server and tools business, said last week.


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It is really coming together, finally!

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