Betting on 64-bit Wintel

New architecture finds a niche today, is poised to enter the mainstream tomorrow

When will the 64-bit Wintel platform be ready for prime time? For some shops running custom applications that manipulate massive amounts of data, the time is now. For example, Information Resources has built an OLAP (Online Analytical Processing) service on 64-bit SQL Server, allowing customers in the consumer packaged goods industry to slice and dice terabytes of market data over the Internet. And Cornell Theory Center runs SQL Server on a 32-processor Itanium-based Unisys mainframe to feed researchers’ simulations at Cornell University.

Of course, it will take longer before companies begin to  adopt the platform for running mainstream business applications from ISVs such as SAP, but even this may happen sooner than you think. Rolf Mueller, SAP’s development manager for Microsoft platforms, believes his company’s larger customers could begin moving to Windows on Itanium in the next 12 to 18 months, to take advantage of a lower cost of ownership than for 64-bit Unix platforms. 

Today, SAP has a handful of production customers on the platform, but they are typically small technology companies, early adopters. Fortune 2000 customers are showing a great deal of interest, he says, but they need to be convinced. They need examples of companies placing the same level of faith in 64-bit Windows and Itanium that they’re accustomed to placing in Solaris or AIX.

Mueller believes these examples are right around the corner. With 7,000 SAP customers running older versions of the vendor’s software on five-year-old hardware, and no upgrade licensing fees standing in the way — “they have the right to upgrade; there’s no additional payment” — Mueller thinks the time is ripe for many customers to invest in Itanium and 64-bit Windows.

For SAP, which began testing Itanium in the late 1990’s, it’s been a long road to 64-bit Wintel. In addition to difficulties inherent in developing for Itanium, such as the need for extensive post-compile optimization, SAP was forced to wrestle with Windows’ 32-bit legacy. “The biggest problem that we had is that Microsoft adopted the 32-bit model of data types — the data type long is still 32-bit,” Mueller explained. “That makes it really easy to port pure Windows 32 programs to 64-bit. But for us who come from Unix, it makes it much more difficult.”

Microsoft’s 32-bit roots still run deep into the 64-bit platform. “What we have seen is that some fundamental algorithms in SQL Server that are not necessary for 64-bit are still there. For example, if multiple people do a sort in SQL Server — are sorting an intermediate result — SQL Server copies the data to temp.db. That means the [program’s] assumption is that the address room is not big enough to do multiple sorts in memory. That’s right on 32-bit but on 64-bit, it might not be the case. It’s a really good port. But the whole architecture of the system is still 32-bit.”