The Hidden Message of WinHEC: 64 Bits or Bust

Opinion: The subtle message at Microsoft's WinHEC conference this week was that 64-bit computing is coming-whether you like it or not. And one of the biggest drivers of that is something called NX.

Disclosure: I currently consult with Microsoft, Intel and AMD.

The subtle message at WinHEC this week was that 64-bit computing is coming—whether you like it or not. And one of the biggest drivers of that is something called NX.

The first time Id heard of NX was in a prebriefing for the Microsoft developers conference earlier this year, and it stopped me cold.

You see, one of the biggest problems that the Windows platform has had is buffer overflow exploits; and up until that briefing, I was unaware that there was even anything on the table to definitively address the problem.

NX, which stands for No Execute, is designed to attack this exploit with a vengeance. But even though Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) will enable this capability, most hardware isnt capable of running NX.

This should be a wake-up call: Only the Intel Itanium, Advanced Micro Devices Opteron 64 and AMD Athlon 64 processor will run NX today. And Ill bet you dont have one of those on your desktop.

But new processors have a tendency to slip. And if it doesnt exist, you cant buy it.

Intel also has announced a Xeon processor for servers and workstations with 64-bit extensions. And with Apple also going 64-bit, Im starting to think Intel needs a 64-bit desktop line sooner rather than later—or itll look like it was left behind. (Prescott is rumored to be able to run 64-bit extensions, but Intel has not confirmed this).

Creating confusion for the buyer who is trying to decide between 64-bit and 32-bit computers could actually cause that buyer to settle on something else, like a car, instead of a new PC—which doesnt do any PC company much good.

While NX is probably the most powerful argument for 64-bit computing today, because we are all scared half to death about security, it isnt the only reason Microsoft is excited about 64-bit platforms. There are other aspects that have the company champing at the bit to make the move.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to read about Microsofts assertion that it is not abandoning its next-generation secure computing base.

One not-so-obvious reason is that it would require some of the most problematic applications to be rewritten to run correctly—and these applications are increasingly causing the security and reliability problems for which Windows customers blame Microsoft.

These are typically old, 16-bit applications or the first (circa 1995) 32-bit applications, which are nasty to support and have a tendency to do ugly things to the PCs they run on. Applications properly written in the current decade should mostly run fine on the new 64-bit versions of Windows, according to Microsoft.

/zimages/7/28571.gifSome legacy subsystems, such as 16-bit support, wont get Windows 64-bit support, a Microsoft official said at WinHEC. Click here to read more.

Another benefit of 64-bit computing is that you can now use more than 4GB of addressable memory. Memory has become very inexpensive, and it is one of the easiest ways to increase the performance of a system.

By enabling this much memory, you can effectively bypass the bottleneck represented by the hard drive, and even complex applications will begin to really pop. This isnt just games, but photo and video editing along with database-intensive desktop and server applications. As we move to VOIP, think how fast directory searches could become if we could drop the directory into addressable memory.

Microsoft is suddenly very serious about 64-bit computing, and with both Apple and Linux looking to move as well, it may be time to pack our bags, because ready or not, we are about to be relocated to a 64-bit world.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.

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