Major hardware makers have responded to Microsofts pleas to develop 64-bit drivers, building up the necessary infrastructure to support upcoming 64-bit operating systems. For enterprise customers, the necessary code may be in place; but the outlook for support by smaller vendors and for legacy devices is uncertain.
A number of chip companies polled by eWEEK.com reported that they are well on their way toward developing 64-bit drivers supporting Microsoft Corp.s Windows XP 64-Bit Edition for 64-Bit Extended Systems or rival 64-bit Linux distributions. The enterprise market, they said, seems especially prepared.
Microsoft turned the focus on 64-bit drivers at its WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) in May, when Windows group vice president Jim Allchin told developers: "There is one thing missing, and the one thing we need from you: 64-bit drivers. You guys have got to write 64-bit drivers."
Drivers represent an often-overlooked piece of a 64-bit puzzle that is slowly coming together. Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. have brought their 64-bit CPUs to market, and Microsoft has issued a beta of its Windows 64-bit Extended Edition for 64-Bit Extended System operating system. SuSE AG has released a version of its 64-bit OS as well.
The shift to 64-bit platforms was made to eliminate the 4-gigabyte barrier, a limitation of the 32-bit address space. Conventional 32-bit OSes allowed as much as 4GB of memory to be addressed; the new 64-bit address space can theoretically address over 16 million terabytes of information, or up to 8 terabytes of user-mode address space under 64-bit Windows. Rewriting Windows and Linux for 64-bit architectures means that all of the memory address pointers become larger, and the drivers have to be rewritten to work inside the larger memory space, analysts said.
And without those drivers, the devices themselves may simply not work.
For example, Warren Togami, the founder of the Fedora Project, purchased a dual 1.4GHz Opteron server with an Adaptec RAID controller in 2003 for about $2,500 for his home, according to a posting on a Red Hat mailing list.
At the time, Adaptecs drivers werent designed for 64-bit architectures. "If you are going for AMD64 for any brand of Linux and you want to run 64-bit Linux immediately, make sure your devices are already supported by the kernel first," Togami wrote. "If I had known that these Adaptec drivers were inoperative in AMD64 mode, I would have chosen different SCSI RAID controllers."
The company now supports the controllers for 64-bit Linux.
"Microsoft could have created a transition mode for 32-bit drivers, but did not do this–a very good thing, as supporting 32-bit drivers would have brought some real legacy baggage, said Martin Reynolds, a technology analyst at Gartner Inc., based in San Jose, Calif. "The bottom line: [You] have to have 64-bit drivers for Windows."
PCs, with their thousands of available devices, are expected to have a much tougher time standardizing on 64-bit drivers by the time of Microsofts launch. But the relatively limited number of devices designed for the enterprise market means that vendors such as Intel and Microsoft can focus their resources.
Intel, for example, will be holding a series of driver optimization workshops in early August in preparation for the launch, according to Jim Pappas, director for technology initiatives at Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif. Intel has been working with market leaders in various product categories to ensure that drivers will be ready.
"Were developing toolkits, working with companies," Pappas said. "Were in quite good shape, actually."
Part of the reason is that IHVs (independent hardware vendors) are somewhat familiar with 64-bit architectures, such as the SPARC chips from Sun Microsystems Inc. and Fujitsu Ltd., the DEC Alpha chip, and operating systems such as HPs Tru64. Many of those enterprise architectures now run under Linux.
Initially, IHVs thought they would be forced to develop 64-bit drivers for both the AMD64 and EM64T architectures, as well as the Microsoft and Linux OSes. In reality, however, Microsoft has provided a single code base to developers looking to support both processor architectures.