What's Next for Windows?

64-bit enhancements could reshape your university’s software strategy— especially if your 32-bit Windows servers are about to run out of steam.

Do you hear it? It’s that noise again. Every few years, Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) and the trade press start hyping a “forthcoming” Windows upgrade that will “forever change the world of computing.” This time, most of the buzz involves Longhorn, code name for the oft-delayed successor to Windows XP that won’t ship until 2005 or 2006 at the earliest. But while you listen for Longhorn-related updates from Bill Gates, be sure to ask your Microsoft reps and trusted integration partners about Microsoft’s existing and forthcoming 64-bit enhancements to Windows.

My reasoning for this advice is rather simple: Microsoft’s major server and desktop operating systems have relied primarily on 32-bit designs since around 1995. That’s fine for everyday applications like Word, Excel, and even departmental server databases. But some universities are running up against the 4-gigabyte virtual-memory limit found in the 32-bit Windows design. By contrast, 64-bit Windows has a 16-terabyte virtual-memory limit. That’s quite a difference: Each terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes.

Sure, universities have been using 64-bit Unix operating systems from Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com), IBM (www.ibm.com), and Sun Microsystems (www.sun.com) for a while. Each of those options offers rock-solid reliability and proven scalability—though you’ll pay a premium for proprietary hardware. You can also embrace 64-bit Linux (www.linux.com) offerings—a solid choice—but that’s not a campus wide option for universities hitching their software architectures to Microsoft’s Windows-centric Net strategy.

Early Adopters and You

Although 64-bit Windows is still in its infancy, eager adopters include Johns Hopkins University (MD) and Cornell University (NY). According to a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins, researchers use 64-bit Windows to crunch complex computations—taking 10 days to compute a task that previously required up to six months using 32-bit Windows systems.

Similarly, Cornell uses 64-bit Windows in its Theory Center for “computational steering”—a technique that allows researchers to monitor and manage complex simulations in real time, using interim results to guide decisions about how to direct ongoing computation.

Those aren’t everyday tasks, but your university may soon need 64-bit Windows for mainstream applications as well. Over the next few years, as your Web infrastructure grows to include portal, eCommerce, video, and voice-over-IP capabilities, your traditional 32-bit Windows servers may simply run out of steam.

Window Pains

Still, the 64-bit Windows puzzle is missing a few key pieces. Generally speaking, application developers such as Oracle ( www.oracle.com), PeopleSoft (www.peoplesoft.com), and SAP AG (www.sap.com) offer limited (if any) 64-bit Windows products. Computer Associates International Inc. (www.ca.com) is banging the drum for its 64-bit database on Windows, but then, CA is a niche player in the database market. So far, the killer app for 64-bit Windows is Microsoft’s own SQL Server database. Cornell and Johns Hopkins both run SQL Server in their 64-bit environments because, generally speaking, it’s a lower-cost alternative to 64-bit Unix databases from Oracle and IBM.

My other short-term concern involves Microsoft’s processor support. The software giant originally designed 64-bit Windows and SQL Server to run on Intel Corp.’s (www.intel.com) 64-bit Itanium processor (co-developed with HP). So far, so good—but here’s where the trouble starts: Many corporate and university customers were slow to embrace Itanium because it ran existing 32-bit applications in “emulation” mode, an approach that often chokes software performance. Not surprisingly, some customers balked at that strategy. Some even ran into the open arms of Intel’s primary rival, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (www.amd.com). To AMD’s credit, the company’s 64-bit Opteron processors allow customers to easily mix and max their established 32-bit applications with next-generation 64-bit applications. AMD’s hybrid approach proved so intriguing that IBM, HP, and Sun now offer servers equipped with AMD’s 64-bit processors. Eager Opteron adopters and testers include the Universities of Michigan, Utah, and Tennessee.

The fun will begin when Microsoft ships SQL Server 2005 next year; the database upgrade will run on 64-bit Intel and AMD processors.

To Intel’s credit, the company has reversed course and adjusted its processor strategy to include 64-bit chips that run 32-bit applications without any performance tradeoffs. The new Xeon chips, known as Intel Extended Memory 64 Technology (or Intel EM64T), are available now with selected servers.

More Window Pains

In the meantime, 64-bit Windows and AMD’s 64-bit Opteron processors should be a match made in heaven. But unfortunately, their nuptials have been delayed until at least the first half of 2005. That’s when Microsoft expects to finally ship Windows Server 2003 for 64-bit Extended Systems. The “Extended Systems” moniker means the Windows upgrade will run on Opteron or Intel Xeon with 64-bit extensions.

The real fun will begin when Microsoft ships SQL Server 2005 sometime next year. The database upgrade, which some universities are currently testing, will run on 64-bit Intel and AMD processors.

Admittedly, there’s no need for you to stampede to 64-bit Windows. But you should speak with your applications providers to determine when they’ll deliver 64-bit products. If your curriculum includes such areas as engineering, architecture, medical imaging, computer-aided design, graphic design, and other computer-intensive courses, then 64-bit workstations and servers may be a logical option.

Your 64-bit Options
Linux Widely available on 64-bit processors today and a natural choice for Web applications.
64-bit Windows Today, only available for Intel’s Itanium processor. Should support additional 64-bit Intel and AMD processors next year.
Unix Widely available for proprietary RISC processors from HP, IBM, Sun, and others. HP-UX, a Unix variant from Hewlett-Packard, is also available for Itanium.

And unlike some Microsoft programming efforts, I’ve got faith in the 64-bit Windows development team. Dave Cutler, the man behind Digital Equipment Corp.’s legendary VMS operating system from the 1980s, headed the initial Windows NT programming team in the early 1990s and quietly spearheads Microsoft’s 64-bit Windows initiatives. Cutler was the central character in Showstopper! (Macmillan Inc., 1994), a witty and insightful look at the original NT development team, penned by G. Pascal Zachary.

With Cutler onboard, I have no doubt that Microsoft will continue to close the scalability gap between 64-bit Windows and Unix, leading to a final high-end showdown between Windows and Linux.

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