It's merely the roll of distant thunder now, but a variety of 64-bit computing platforms due during the next two years should rain important technical advances that will bring 64-bit computing power to mainstream applicationsExperts say the performance leap of 64-bit servers could give companies the ability to build more flexible server architectures for database-intensive applications, and give the performance headroom necessary to launch high-volume Internet-commerce applications.
And although completion of the IA-64 chip architecture from Intel and Hewlett-Packard, set for release in late 1999, is still more than a year away, IT managers need to make preliminary plans for moving to 64-bit servers that today only crop up in scientific applications.
With the Internet's exponential growth, many ISPs are now showcases for 64-bit Unix servers, foreshadowing issues that IT managers are likely to face as they cope with intranet expansion this year.
For example, Digital, which started shipping its 64-bit hardware and software platforms in 1994, has shipped more than 4500 servers to corporate accounts, including many ISPs.
According to Lenny Rosenthal, director of marketing at Silicon Graphics' Internet systems division, SGI - another 64-bit platform provider - is seeing corporate demand for 64-bit systems in three main areas. These include data warehousing, IP video delivery and large-scale Internet applications such as I-commerce, Web site hosting, e-mail and news group services.
Of these areas, Internet applications may be the most promising. AT&T WorldNet, Travelocity and Warner Brothers are just some of the ISPs and Web site operators using Silicon Graphics' 64-bit WebForce servers. Rosenthal estimates the demand for 64-bit computing among ISPs alone will be growing from 100 per cent to 150 per cent to become a $US500 million business in 1998.
"If you want to combine electronic commerce transactions with massive storage of content, you'll probably need the higher processing computing," says Don Ryan, a vice president at the Meta Group. "If you're doing divisional or single-application commerce applications, my guess is that it's not a necessity yet."
Indeed, right now 64-bit servers and workstations are relegated to niche markets, albeit sometimes profitable niches including the scientific, engineering, and academic markets. But during the last year or so, 64-bit Unix vendors have seen an uptick in 64-bit sales as some corporate accounts have developed an interest in data-mining and data-warehousing applications.
The capability to load huge amounts of data in memory may cause more than just faster performance.
Some analysts say hosting full databases in memory will also let users construct faster, more flexible systems.
"Instead of having 10 32-bit database servers, which adds a lot of complexity, you can now have just four 64-bit servers with the database running strictly in memory," says Richard Buchanan, a senior analyst at the Meta Group. "The advantage is you are managing fewer servers with a design approach that reduces complexity but still gives you wicked, amazingly good performance."
This type of adaptive server architecture also allows more users to access any given server.
"Instead of having one huge database machine being hammered on by thousands of users, you can partition the database into separate physical databases and then run them all in memory," Buchanan says. "There is a growing feeling that 64-bit adoption will be driven less by high performance for traditional database and graphics applications and more by the opportunity it gives users to change their philosophies about designing infrastructures."
However, software for both the OS and specifically written applications may hold up the adoption of this more flexible architecture.
"The problem with partitioning databases is making the changes to the other applications that were written to be unified with it," says Henry Morris, program director for data warehousing and applications at International Data Corp (IDC). "I am not sure the big business apps are up to this yet. This could be a Ômany-years' process."
In the meantime, traditional PC software vendors are already preparing for the big shift to 64- bit as the arrival of the IA-64 - or the Merced chip - looms.
"Once Merced comes out, 64-bit computing will become an essential part of the market," says Jean Bozman, an IDC analyst. "Most vendors so far have delivered 64-bit hardware and asked users to continue running 32-bit software. With Merced, having a 64-bit operating system available will be a requirement."
Microsoft plans to port more than 100 million lines of code covering several different products (including Windows NT, its tools, and BackOffice applications) to both Merced and Digital's 64-bit Alpha chip, says Ed Muth, NT group product manager at Microsoft. Microsoft will release a 64-bit "pre-beta version" of NT by the end of this year. They will also release a syntax-checking tool this month, that gives application developers a heads-up notice of any code that needs attention before either Merced or NT for Merced are available.
Novell also plans to deliver a version of NetWare for Merced in 1999, company sources say.
Additionally, Merced is enjoying the endorsement of many Unix vendors as they hedge their bets by offering their operating systems on their own processors and Merced.
In December, Sun Microsystems said it would adapt its Unix-based Solaris operating system to Merced. HP, Merced's co-developer, threw its support behind the chip, saying the company will continue supporting its 64-bit Unix-based PA-RISC platform, but will transition over its users, beginning in 1999. So far IBM has been silent about its plans for adapting AIX 4.3 - its first 64-bit Unix-based OS delivered last fall, to Merced.
In the meantime, most IT directors are still concerned with the thorny problems of moving large numbers of users on 16-bit desktop applications to 32-bit platforms and/or stabilising existing 32-bit server applications.