What's Next for Windows?
- By Joseph C. Panettieri
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,
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
Still, the 64-bit Windows puzzle is missing a few key pieces. Generally speaking,
application developers such as Oracle (
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
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
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
||Widely available on 64-bit processors today and a natural choice for Web
||Today, only available for Intel’s Itanium processor.
Should support additional 64-bit Intel and AMD processors next year.
||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.