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VNU Net: Microsoft's 64bit struggle for the enterprise

Jul 20, 2000, 14:09 (24 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Guy Matthews)

By Guy Matthews, VNU Net

The Windows operating system (OS) has taken its first faltering steps towards a full 64bit future.

Last week, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates proudly showed off a near complete version of Windows 2000 to run on Intel's IA-64 hardware, promising that the transition to 64bit would be "much easier" than the move from 16bit to 32bit.

Tellingly, his words were aimed not at those who will buy or deploy 64bit Windows, but at code-crunchers attending the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Orlando, Florida. They will benefit, Gates claimed, from a shiny new instruction set that Microsoft and Intel have "poured billions into".

But for everyone else, including Microsoft itself, the move to a 64bit world looks like being anything but simple.

So far, this latest staging post for the Windows OS has been greeted with relative indifference. This is hardly surprising, however, as the odd preview version here and there represents nothing but a pawn in a much longer-term game. But into the future, Microsoft has a great deal at stake.

Gunning for Unix
The Redmond giant's clear and stated aim is to drive Windows 2000 further into the enterprise. This poses a threat to the various incumbent Unix variants that currently dominate the market, the most obvious being Sun Microsystems' Solaris.

To this end, Microsoft will initially release two flavours of 64bit Windows, one for servers and one for workstations, which will be launched simultaneously following the shipment of the first 64bit Intel-based machines later this year.

In yet another attempt to bolster the credibility of its enterprise ambitions, Microsoft has also generously pre-announced details of the next two versions of Windows 2000, namely Whistler, due out in the second half of next year, and Blackcomb, which is expected a year later.

But there are various flies in this smooth-sounding ointment. Most notably, Microsoft's plans have been undermined by its failure to synchronise shipment of its 64bit baby with the most crucial part of the jigsaw, Intel's IA-64 chip.

The Unix community and other Microsoft critics are cock-a-hoop that almost every flavour of Unix will steal a march on Windows by being available on IA-64 before it.

IBM's Monterey/64 will be pretty much ready when Intel launches the first member of the IA-64 family, Itanium, later this summer. And doubtless to the particular chagrin of Gates, Linux too looks like beating Windows to 64bit status.

In fact, some industry watchers argue that a full and final version of 64bit Windows might not even be available for as much as six months after the processor arrives.

A lack of 64bit hardware
In an ironic reversal of the early days of Windows application development, Microsoft has been hobbled by not having access to fully developed 64bit hardware to test its prototypes on. IBM, Sun and others, on the other hand, already have their own non-Intel 64bit machines to work with and have had operating systems to match for some time.

In its defence, Microsoft cites the forthcoming Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, an extension of 32bit Windows 2000, as evidence that it is already highly active in the enterprise space. It claims that Datacenter, which is well overdue but scheduled to ship imminently, is a more than credible offering for demanding applications such as ecommerce, data mining and online transaction processing.

The software giant argues that the offering will provide all of the functionality currently found in Windows 2000 Advanced Server, but will also include 64Gb of memory, support for 32 processors, four-node clustering, process control and network load balancing.

Microsoft's keenness to stress the strengths of Datacenter suggests that it is not expecting a stampede for early copies of 64bit Windows. Analysts have certainly warned that no one should hold their breath waiting for a headlong rush of potential users.

But does any of this matter in the long term?

Exploiting critical applications
Some analysts say that the real test for 64bit Intel-based systems in general, and for 64bit Windows in particular, is still some way off, but will revolve around their ability to exploit the kind of mission-critical enterprise applications that the architecture was conceived for. This includes being able to handle the largest of corporate databases.

Matt Hanrahan, an analyst at Bloor Research, says: "Only a maniac would want to be first to deploy crucial applications on 64bit technology. If you're going to use this kind of thing in anger, it's got to be totally watertight."

He believes that the only corporates likely to be rushing for early editions of 64bit Windows will be those wanting to install it in a laboratory for test purposes.

However, Hanrahan says that it is still far too early to declare who the winners and losers in the 64bit space will be, and adds that Microsoft has as much chance of getting it right or wrong as anyone else.

Many analysts are describing the early rush by vendors to produce operating systems that work with Itanium as a phoney war anyway. Clive Longbottom, an analyst at Strategy Partners, argues: "For most people, Intel's McKinley will be the first true 64bit architecture, but that's not happening until the latter half of 2001. Then the race between Microsoft and Linux will really start."

If evidence for the irrelevance of Itanium were needed, he continues, it can be found in the apparent decision by Hewlett Packard (HP) not to base its servers on IA-64 until McKinley arrives. HP, as the co-creator of the whole IA-64 project with Intel, is in a position of some influence and authority in 64bit matters.

Shock to the systems
Early adopters that feel compelled to move to Itanium - which they will not be able to swap out for follow-on chips - will find few system manufacturers in a hurry to develop products for them. And those systems that do appear will not be cost competitive against rival systems for an even longer time, claim analysts.

In the same way, application developers are unlikely to bust a gut to produce the goods for early versions of 64bit Windows.

All this means that Microsoft's early forays into 64bit territory are little more than marketing exercises. And the company may have to resign itself to this situation for some time, if some influential voices are to be believed. Indeed, analyst firm Gartner does not foresee that 64bit Windows will find a significant market presence until 2003.

But if the software giant, on its long trek down the 64bit path, wants to remind itself why it is bothering at all, it need only look at the huge sums of money involved in this space. In the first three months of this year alone, Sun, IBM, Compaq, HP and SGI, each of which has a 64bit version of Unix that runs on their own 64bit hardware, claimed the lion's share of a server market worth $6.6bn.

However, users would also be unwise to sit out the dance. As Hanrahan says: "The power that 64bit technology delivers is something nobody can afford to ignore."

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