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.
Microsofts public betas support only the AMD64 implementation, but developers such as LSI Logic Inc. were provided code for both processor implementations several months ago, according to Luca Bert, director of program and product management for LSI Logics RAID Storage Adapter Division in Milpitas, Calif.
David Young, vice president of marketing at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Marvell Technology Group Inc., a maker of gigabit Ethernet LAN chips, said the company has drivers prepared for the 64-bit chips from AMD and Intel, as well as for the Microsoft and Linux operating systems.
Developers at Infiniband IC maker Mellanox Technologies Inc., based in Santa Clara, Calif., had already been working with Intels PAE-36 technology, a stopgap method of bypassing the address limitation in 32-bit processors. Shifting to 64-bit drivers actually cleaned up some of the software, said Kevin Deierling, vice president of product marketing at the company. “Its been a really clean transition,” he said.
But other 64-bit development work doesnt necessarily carry over into the work being done for AMDs AMD64 and Intel EM64T platforms. For example, when asked if Adaptec was able to leverage any of the work done with Intels 64-bit Itanium chip, Michael Arellano, a “product champion” responsible for overseeing Adaptec Inc.s SCSI products at the Milpitas, Calif., company, said no.
“We didnt even touch those,” Arellano said of the Itanium drivers. Although Adaptec was forced to make a number of specific driver changes for the Itanium architecture, all of Adaptecs AMD64 and EM64T work was done “on a different branch” of code.
Adaptec is “pretty far along” on 64-bit driver development and is simply waiting for Microsofts final code for testing purposes, he said. Linux, by contrast, was a snap. “For straight SCSI products, it was pretty simple,” Arellano said. “We took that embedded driver, recompiled it under the 64-bit OS, and we were done. No issues.”
Here, open-source OSes have an advantage. “There have been 64-bit Unix implementations for over 10 years, which gives the Linux camp a bit of an advantage,” said Peter Glaskowsky, former editor of The Microprocessor Report and now an independent analyst.
“They were all fairly low-volume platforms, though, and generally supported only on proprietary hardware. The Windows market has tens of thousands of devices that were never supported under any 64-bit Unix or Linux implementation, so theres certainly much more work to be done on the Windows side.”
Thats not to say that open-source implementations have gone flawlessly. One 64-bit Linux distribution that is currently shipping “doesnt work,” LSIs Bert said, a flaw he said he expects to be fixed soon.
Betas for MandrakeSofts Mandrake distribution and Gentoo, among others, also run with limited functionality, technology site OSNews.com has reported. Red Hat began shipping its own 64-bit OS with support for AMD64 in October.
Most enterprise chip vendors said theyve reworked their drivers to take advantage of native 64-bit code paths, rather than simply rewriting the software to address the additional address space. The latter choice, which AMD internally calls “True 64,” will likely be the direction of enterprise vendors, observers said. So-called “Easy 64” implementations designed for extra addressability may be the route PC device manufacturers take.
Some vendors have already published their 64-bit beta drivers for the public to test, although they arent officially supported by the manufacturers themselves. Graphics-chip makers ATI Technologies Inc. and rival Nvidia Corp. have published beta code to their respective Web sites, and updated drivers supporting their latest chips will be available in the coming weeks, officials at both companies said.
ATI, based in Thornhill, Ontario, currently lacks a 64-bit Linux beta. “This is something we are currently working on and anticipate having a beta release available before the end of the year,” spokesman Jon Carvill said.
The bottom line, however, is that driver manufacturers cant ship code until after Microsoft. “Were gated by the OS,” LSIs Bert said.
Editors Note: This story has been corrected to indicate that Red Hat began shipping its Linux operating system with support for AMD64 last year, and clarified to specify the limits of 64-bit addressing.