64- bit: Wave of the Future

The adoption of new technologies is often difficult as users have to be persuaded of the benefits, but it looks like 64-bit processing might finally be getting the momentum it needs.

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By  Guy Mathew Published  May 12, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|The transition from 32-bit to 64-bit processor architectures has been called the most important change in computing in fifteen years. It is apparently a great leap forward in terms of the potential it offers for applied usage ranging from mapping galaxies to running design programmes on your workstation faster. It is relevant to clusters with a thousand processors and to a standalone terminal with just one. It is the first major change to how microchips work since the shift from 16-bit to 32-bit that corresponded to the model numbers shifting from 286 to 386. The processor now deals with information strings twice the length, therefore it can work at twice the speed. But other innovations mean it is up to twelve times faster in its Intel iteration, called Itanium, according to the company. Intel has competition though. AMD is planning to release its series of 64-bit processors by the end of the year, starting with Opteron, a PC processor.
64-bit architectures are not new. Compaq’s Alpha processor, IBM’s Power processor and Sun’s UltraSparc processors are all based on 64-bit architectures, but the Intel Itanium is the first such architecture to be compatible with Windows. Itanium was developed in conjunction with HP who first created the explcitly parallel instruction computing (EPIC), a key feature of the technology, in 1995. As Mohammed Lehar, Enterprise Server Business Development Manager at HP Middle East, explains: “We saw that if we continued at the pace [of development] we were going at, the cost was going to go up very steeply. At this time Intel was doing its own 64-bit development so we joined together.”
However, as with a lot of innovations things have not gone quite to plan. A cautious approach from enterprise has dampened enthusiasm and despite Intel’s might, there is some way to go before adoption rates are what the company would like. The main reason cited for this is the lack of application development. “The key driver for the adoption [of 64-bit architecture] will really be the applications because you can have a 64-bit OS but if you have a 32-bit application on a 64-bit OS, you can run it but you will not realise any benefits in terms of performance,” says Haider Salloum, product marketing manager, Microsoft enterprise and business division.
Analysts also suggest that the announcement of Itanium 2, codenamed McKinley, before Itanium had taken off, has led to companies delaying adoption until Itanium 2 arrives. “Customers requiring highly scalable systems will not risk the new architecture without years of testing and industry acceptance. Customers should consider Itanium if guaranteed savings greater than 40% over their current systems, otherwise—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Rob Sutherland, analyst at Tech Business Research.
The basis of 64-bit architectures and why they are such an important step forward stems from a number of technologies. The EPIC technology allows the processor to deal with more calculations simultaneously. The floating point engine allow it to be more responsive for applications like data mining and complex calculations. Larger stores of virtual memory in conjuction with the Windows 64-bit OS allow it to cue data in advance of tasks, reducing the amount of disk reading time also resulting in improved speed.
Sectors that have seen implementations of 64-bit systems in the Middle East include oil and gas, financial and telecommunications as well as engineering and research. This is indicative of the type of applications that gain the most. “If you have large databases, business intelligence, large scale web-serving, caching and hosting and scientific and CAD applications, then you will be in the general group,” says Salloum.
One of the best fit applications for the oil industry is in virtual mapping of reserves. Schlumberger has built a virtual mapping centre on Compaq hardware for an end user in Abu Dhabi. In Europe, CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research) near Geneva has implemented Itanium-based systems. The experiments conducted there are of the highest order of complexity and produce vast quantities of data so as IT project manager, Sverre Jaap says: “We need very fast computers in large quantities.”

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The technolgy will have a significant impact on the mid-range Unix market, according to analysts at Gartner. The growing use of Linux by Independent Software Vendors (ISV) is likely to reduce the need for Unix based systems as companies can now choose to run Linux, Windows and different flavours of Unix in the same box using Itanium architecture. Microsoft are hoping to benefit from this: “A lot of people who are running Unix now are going to say why are we spending all this money running a Unix box when we can get the same performance or better from a Windows box?” Salloum says.
AMD’s offering, although a little further down the road, does have one advantage. It is completely compatible with 32-bit applications, unlike Itanium which requires applications to be ported over. AMD is hoping that it will attract customers that have been wary of migrating to Itanium thus far. “An enterprise can use one single Hammer platform and can run all its 32-bit apps and 64-bit apps at the same time at high speed. This preserves the billions of dollars enterprises have already spent on 32-bit applications,” says Raz Sobhani, MEA sales manager, AMD.
Microsoft points out that with Server 2000 Limited Edition, companies can still support clients running applications on different architectures with minimal porting time and cost, but AMD is hoping to steal a march on Intel. It is aiming at the lower end as it is planning to introduce its PC chip before the server version. It hopes this will turn out to be an easier market to crack than the enterprise space. “It [Itanium] is designed for the top 10% of corporate applications whereas ours is for normal desktop applications as well. Plus the die size is going to be only 20% more than the normal AMD die size, so you can imagine the price which we will be able to sell the processors at,” says Sobhani.
Sobhani explains that hardware changes are minimal for Hammer, even at the low-end: “You can continue to use your existing PC components such as video cards, PCI cards, memory etc. The only thing you would need to upgrade is the mainboard, CPU and heatsink.”
However, most industy observers believe that with Itanium 2 launching at some point during Q3 this year, many more customers will go over to it. Roland Jones, spokesman for Intel Middle East, explains that the second generation of Itanium will offer improvements to the design and he believes that the development of applications that have been tested will lead to a mass uptake. “What Itanium 2 will do is sort out all the little teething problems, because all the software hadn’t been optimised, because it takes months to get it running perfectly.”

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Lehar does not think that switching to Itanium or not switching should be such a big issue. He says that with HP, customers can delay the decision even if they are buying hardware at the moment. “Right now you can have a choice of OS, so with the same workstation and two processors you can run HP Unix 64-bit and you don’t have to change any of your applications; you can run Linux or you can run Windows 64-bit at the same time. That is a major driving point. Customers can see that we have a two processor roadmap so if the next generation RISC processor is fine they can buy the next one of that line, but if McKinley does come and deliver what it is promising they can switch.”
Linux has already been optimised for Itanium by Red Hat, SuSe and TurboLinux which ties-in with Gartner’s analysis of the direction ISVs are taking, and Red Hat in the Middle East is confident in the future demand for Linux on Itanium.
Yahya Kassab, general manager of Red Hat Middle East, believes that Itanium will filter down from the enterprise space to small and medium sized businesses in a short space of time. “It will go down to the smaller business, as with any product, especially with the combination of Intel and Red Hat because together both companies can provide an enterprise type of solution with a price that both medium and small companies can afford.”
Microsoft’s Salloum believes that this is the area where the channel can capitalise and channel players should be developing long-term strategies for how they can add value to companies who opt for Itanium. “Even if you are a medium to a small reseller, you can have your specialised line in this platform and work with vendors, work with application developers and offer services that add value,” he says.
He suggests preparation is the key and that it will be early adopters in the channel who will gain most by taking a strong market position. However, there is not much evidence that people are taking his advice. Syed Anwar, business development manager, Direct Computer Systems (DCS) said it was on their radar but they have other projects to deal with. ZAI factory manager, Basam Abu Baker agreed with the sentiment, although he said he would be consulting with Intel on the matter very soon. Manoj Thacker, general manager of Sky Electronics, AMD’s distributor, said that it was too early to develop a roadmap because although motherboard manufacturers are testing, AMD has not yet given any information on price points.
Clearly there is some awareness of 64-bit architectures in the channel but as adoption has been slow and confined to the high end up until now it is perhaps not surprising that there are no major plans afoot. As Salloum says: “64-bit will not be a paradigm shift for everybody the same way the 16 to 32–bit was. We pushed everybody to make that jump, but in 64-bit we’re not. Yes, it can add a lot of value but it is not for everyone.”
But analysts are still backing 64-bit. ARS server analyst, Steve Greenburg is in no doubt what the future holds for 64-bit and the effects that will have on Unix vendors: “Although some of the obstacles may sound troubling for the Itanium, the processor and its successors will eventually dominate the market.”
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