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Bit by bit, 64-bit processors catching on

Jul 14, 20037 mins
Computers and PeripheralsNetworking

At Fortis Health, servers powered by 64-bit Intel processors are used to run business analytics on – a capability the health insurer says will help keep it one step ahead of the competition. But Roger Jones, senior vice president and CIO at the Milwaukee firm, isn’t looking at Itanium through rose-colored glasses.

Like many users, Jones says he sees the benefits of the stepped-up processing power and expanded memory capabilities of 64-bit Intel processors, but he also sees a technology that is still in its infancy.

“If we’re trying to collect data to understand how to better deliver healthcare to a group of people, if it’s not time-critical, if it’s not transactional, then we’re more focused on running those things on 64-bit,” he says. “We’re not at a point yet, though, where we’re comfortable enough to put those [customer-facing] databases on [a 64-bit] machine.”

Although 64-bit RISC-based systems have been widely used in research labs and academic institutions for high-performance computing, the newer Intel-based 64-bit machines are making their way into corporate data centers supporting data warehouses, business analytics, and even file and print applications. Still, Intel’s 64-bit chip, Itanium, is now found in fewer than 5% of all servers shipped, analysts say.

Itanium’s move into the corporate mainstream is slow because many IT managers are waiting for greater industry support of 64-bit computing. It hasn’t helped that Itanium’s path has been a tough one. The first and second generations of Itanium failed to meet expectations, and vendors – and users – are hoping the third generation of the chip, code-named Madison and officially released last week, will finally meet their needs.

Today, the number of enterprise applications that run on Itanium is small – around 100, while 64-bit RISC can run thousands. Itanium’s arsenal is growing, though: In just the last few months, for example, Microsoft rolled out a 64-bit version of its SQL database, and independent software vendors such as SAP and Lawson have announced that they will support Itanium 2 with their applications.

Systems vendors also are starting to grasp the idea that 64-bit computing can play a role in corporate networks. They are rolling out boxes based on Intel’s Itanium processors to expand their 64-bit repertoire beyond their proprietary – and typically more expensive – RISC architectures.

Advanced Micro Devices’ new 64-bit chip, Opteron, has garnered some attention from systems vendors. The chip is based on Intel’s x86 instruction set with 64-bit extensions, meaning it can run 32- and 64-bit applications simultaneously. Itanium runs 32-bit applications with some degradation, but Intel executives say that concern has been addressed in the latest release. IBM is the only major systems vendor to announce support for Opteron, and demonstrated a server cluster based on it at the ClusterWorld Conference & Expo last month.

Dell has introduced an Itanium-based server, although executives say the company’s focus is on the high-performance computing community until 64-bit computing in corporations becomes mainstream.

At the same time, early corporate adopters of Itanium say there is no reason to wait. They say they already are reaping benefits from Itanium-based servers and predict that it won’t be long before 64-bit boxes become the norm.

“There may not be a whole lot of applications built on 64-bit today, but if we look at this story about 36 months from now, I would guarantee you that 64-bit will become the way of the land,” says Jeff Cohen, CIO at JetBlue Airways in Forest Hills, N.Y. “In five years you probably won’t have any database applications running on 32-bit, because 64-bit will become so highly commoditized.”

Cohen says he has had no problems since he began beta-testing Microsoft’s 64-bit SQL Server last fall. JetBlue’s frequent-flyer application has been running on the 64-bit SQL database on an HP rx5670 Itanium-based server since December. “We saw major improvements,” he says.

Not only was he able to consolidate the frequent-flyer application from two servers onto one server, but he also found that the application used only about 15% of the box’s processing power at the application’s peak, as compared with consuming more than half of the available resources on the two ProLiant boxes it was running on previously. What’s more, the application performed better, he says.

Cohen says he also found improved performance by combining disparate data warehouses into a single system on a 16-processor Itanium 2 ES7000 from Unisys running Windows 2003 Datacenter Edition.

“Performance has been absolutely improved. Anybody who tests [64-bit computing] will see there’s no discussion,” he says. “It’s the difference between buying a four-cylinder and an eight-cylinder car.”

As for challenges in moving to 64-bit computing, Cohen says there have been “zippo.”

“If you’re doing it in the SQL environment, you don’t have to rewrite applications,” he says. “You just basically pour data into the data warehouse from 32- to 64-bit and you’re off and running.”

Settling on 64

Still far from being mainstream, Intel-based 64-bit computing is nevertheless moving into corporate data centers. A check list to consider if you’re thinking about making the move:
Memories. Memory limitations experienced on 32-bit platforms disappear with Intel 64-bit systems.
Oomph. Processing power and speed get a significant punch when jumping from 32 to 64 bits.
Saving spaces. Applications running on multiple 32-bit machines can be consolidated on fewer 64-bit servers.
VIP service. Early adopters are working closely with vendors to iron out their unique wrinkles.
Why not?  
Cost. The new 64-bit systems are more costly than mainstream 32-bit systems.
The application factor. Independent software vendors are slowly signing on to 64-bit so the application selection is limited.
Not necessary. Many users say their systems are running just fine on 32-bit servers.
The extras. Things such as virus software aren’t available yet for 64-bit systems so that might limit what kind of work can be done on the machines.

It wasn’t just a matter of pouring data from 32- to 64-bit systems for Tim Eitel, CIO at Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, Fla. The firm is using a 16-processor Itanium 2-based HP Superdome to consolidate databases into a single data warehouse that uses Microsoft’s 64-bit SQL Server. That move will let the firm run business-intelligence applications using all its customer data. Eitel says Raymond James has worked closely with Microsoft to develop the database application for the 64-bit platform.

“We don’t have all the expertise, but we’re learning as we go along,” he says. “The plan is we’ll be able to build the other phases ourselves.”

Eitel says he sees the industry heading toward 64-bit systems and plans to migrate other applications over as they require “major changes and modifications.”

As for Fortis’ Jones, he says that as applications such as disk quotas and virus software become available on 64-bit machines, he will move more applications onto 64-bit platforms. He says Windows 2003 Server Datacenter Edition will likely address those issues.

In the meantime, he is trying out the 64-bit processors on a modular Unisys ES7000, where he can easily remove the 64-bit processors and replace them with 32-bit chips if things head downhill.

“We can move forward and get value out of the technology for the business without either jumping in with both feet or having to stand back and wait for everybody else to do it,” he says.

Jones is using the eight Itanium processors in the ES7000 box to run business-intelligence applications, and he plans to bring file and print systems over, at least, in the near term.

“If you are doing very large databases, if you are doing in-depth data analysis, anything that requires gobs of memory – then go with 64-bit. And I would say in another six months that doing file and print on 64-bit is going to be so easy and so economically viable, one should probably look at that,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be worried about whether I was going to rewrite my core business applications for 64-bit at this point.”