Though 64-bit computing has been around for some 14 years or so, until recently it has been accessible only to those operating high-end servers running RISC-based processors such as Sun Microsystem Inc.s SPARC, IBMs Power and Hewlett-Packard Co.s PA-RISC.
That is changing, and soon everything—from thin-and-light notebooks to desktops to blade servers—will be running on a 64-bit architecture. IT professionals should be ready for it.
That was the message from three experts on a recent panel during an e-seminars online session hosted by Ziff Davis Media Inc. While servers have been its domain for more than a decade, 64-bit computing is coming to the desktop.
The push is being fueled by a number of trends, and in a large part by consumers, according to Peter Coffee, technology editor for eWEEK Labs.
Gamers are constantly demanding more memory and the high-performance graphics that are enabled by 64-bit addressability.
Consumers are asking their computers to do more than just create Word documents and send e-mail, Coffee said. They want their computers to store images from their digital cameras and allow them to edit videos.
At the same time, some very large companies are hoping to use telematics to sell their products, which calls for the granularity of data and real-time data streams that 64-bit computing enables, he said. In addition, many businesses are looking to migrate from the more expensive RISC-based systems to computers running on processors from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., but still want the computing power theyre used to.
With its greater memory capabilities, 64-bit computing allows for larger data collections, more precise values in massive calculations and more comprehensive networking. With 32-bit addressability space, its difficult for a company to create a single discrete network address per person, in an environment in which many people need more than one.
“We definitely need a larger address space than 32-bit to put more and more of the worlds population online in any rich way,” Coffee said.
The moves by AMD and Intel to make their x86 processors 64-bit enabled are encouraging migration to 64-bit. AMD, of Sunnyvale, Calif., first entered this realm with its Opteron server processor in 2003, followed later that year by its Athlon 64 chip for desktops and notebooks. AMD last week released Turion 64, a 64-bit mobile processor aimed at the thin-and-light notebook space.
Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif.—which had been pushing Itanium as the ubiquitous 64-bit chip of the future—countered with its EM64T technology, first for its dual-processor Xeon chips and then this year with its Pentium 4 desktop and Xeon MP server processors. Eventually, all Intels chips—including the low-end Celeron processors—will be 64-bit-enabled.
Couple that with Microsoft Corp.s upcoming 64-bit support in its Windows operating system and 64-bit support in the current Linux operating systems, and eventually all systems will be 64-bit enabled, said Rob Enderle, an analyst with The Enderle Group.
Sixty-four-bit offers advantages over 32-bit addressability beyond simply moving past the 4GB memory limit, Enderle said. It offers greater security and reliability through enhancements not only in the hardware but also the operating systems, he said.
In addition, it guarantees scalability, which he defined as systems that will not become obsolete in a short time.
“In buying a product, we want to make sure it lasts as long as we want it to last,” Enderle said. “The 32-bit platform is clearly on its last legs.”
The transition to 64-bit architecture will take a few years, and enterprises will still be able to buy 32-bit systems during that time, he said. However, those systems will not see vast improvements over the next few years, and will reach the end of their usefulness faster than their 64-bit counterparts.
“Machines that are 32 bit will not last much more than three years,” Enderle said. “Machines built for 64 bits will last until at least the end of the decade.”
Like Enderle, Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata Inc., said a key benefit of 64-bit computing is the capability for greater virtualization, which will enable users to run multiple operating systems simultaneously on the same computers.
Haff reminded listeners that while 64-bit computing isnt new to the industry—it was first introduced in 1991 with the MIPS R4000—what is happening is that its going to be more pervasive with the advances by AMD and Intel.
“Sixty-four-bit computing is definitely going mainstream,” Haff said. “Were talking millions and billions [of users], not necessary in the thousands.”