Microsoft Rolls the 64-Bit Dice

Goodbye 32-bits. Sometime next year, Microsoft will release a 64-bit only version of its popular Exchange messaging server software, but has no plans to upgrade the current 32-bit version which will continue to be supported.

It’s a bit of a risk for the software giant, given the 64-bit x86 market is only around two years old, but growing very fast. According to market research firm IDC, 64-bit x86-based systems accounted for 78.8 percent of all x86 servers sold in the first quarter of this year, with factory revenue for x86-64 systems more than doubling year over year.

However, there’s a catch: most if not all those 64-bit x86 servers that have been sold in the past year are running a 32-bit version of Windows.

“Those folks aren’t going to be very happy to know that to get the features in Exchange 2007, they will have to reinstall all that software on a server that’s 64-bit, but loaded with a 32-bit operating system,” said Peter Pawlak, senior analyst for server applications at Directions on Microsoft.

Pawlak was critical of Microsoft’s 64-bit-only decision for Exchange late last year, calling it a “mistake,” but has softened his stand slightly.

“What I’m saying is that it’s a trade-off decision,” he said. “It’s not one that’s going to please everybody, because there are a lot of people who cannot run a 64-bit OS even though we have the hardware to do it. On the other hand, the vast majority of large corporate customers probably don’t care too much about this. By the time they make that move, they will make it with the plan to put that on new servers.”

When word got out late last year that Exchange 2007 would be 64-bit only, there was some gnashing of teeth among analysts and bloggers questioning the move. But Microsoft said customer response has been positive.

“Everyone that we’ve talked to about the advantage of 64-bit likes 64-bit,” Ray Mohrman, technical product manager for Exchange at Microsoft, told

David Lord, spokesman for Dell Computer , said there is definite customer interest in 64-bit computing, particularly because of the increased memory size it offers. “They’re certainly eager to get the software driving 64-bits, because that’s where all the great advantages will come in,” he said.

The 64-bit Advantage

In an FAQ at its Web site, Microsoft made clear why it decided to go 64-bit only for Exchange 2007, due out next year. A chief limiting factor of 32-bit computing is memory; 32-bit processors can only access 4GB of memory at any given time, and in Windows Server 2003 environment, 2GB are taken off the top just booting the computer. That leaves 2GB for running applications that were frequently memory-hungry and performance-sensitive.

The memory limit of a 64-bit Windows system is 16 terabytes, which allows for a great deal more caching in memory and operating in memory rather than disc caching, swapping and writing to disc. Microsoft noted that input/output per user (IOPS) drops by up to 70 percent for 64-bit Exchange compared to the 32-bit version.

Storage can consume up to 40 percent of the hardware costs of an Exchange server, partly because an expensive SAN drive-based system is needed to handle the huge amounts of I/O, said Mohrman. With the lower IOPS in Exchange 2007, customers can use more economical storage like iSCSI or Serial ATA2.

“Sixty-four bits solves a number of problems, not the least of which is the memory limit,” said Rob Enderle, principle analyst for The Enderle Group. “I think the first wave of adopters of things like Exchange and databases are probably already screaming about the limits of 32-bit technology now.”

Mohrman said that while customers are beginning to understand the value proposition of 64-bits, that doesn’t mean they are going to upgrade right away. “It’s different from customer to customer,” he said. “Some will be compelled with unified messaging and see the value, then you’ll see customers who just planned a refresh to coincide with 2007, and then there will be laggards.”

Exchange 2007 has been in a private beta for some time, but the next beta, due in July, will be open to the public, said Mohrman.

Hardware Upgrades Will Drive Exchange’s Adoption

The key driver will be hardware refreshes, because corporate customers tend to upgrade their hardware and software at the same time. The upgrades are driven more by the hardware aging and coming off support coverage, said John Enck, research vice president for server strategies at Gartner Group.

“The average server lifecycle is between three to five years, anyway,” he said. “By the time you go from one [software] release to the next, your equipment is already pretty long in the tooth, so there’s always a hardware refresh cycle that accompanies the software refresh cycle.”

But not all companies, particularly smaller ones, can afford to replace their hardware on a regular basis.

“There’s a group of small businesses that don’t need the additional power of a 64-bit system,” said Pawlak. “Thirty-two-bit hardware is just fine. If you already hosted all your mailboxes on one or two servers and you’re getting adequate response time, why do you care if it’s 64-bit?”

Gartner’s Enck said he’s surprised Microsoft is being so aggressive with 64-bit technology, because it’s a bit more bleeding edge than some customers will want.

“Some customers are saying ‘we’re not ready, we have to retest everything, we’ll get around to it later,'” he said. “Others say ‘I really need this today.’ So there is a segment of the population that really needs this improvement, but there’s a larger population that says this will just delay my implementation, and I think it’s a bigger deal than Microsoft anticipates.”

Pawlak agrees. “This isn’t going to make people go to a competing product,” he said. “You’re not going to go to Notes because there’s no 32-bit version of Exchange 2007, but it will keep people from upgrading.

“I understand Microsoft’s rationale for doing it. I just think that there are going to be a lot of people who hadn’t fully thought through the implications of what that 64-bit decision meant,” he said.

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