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IT managers begin migration to 64-bit servers

Upgraded apps like Exchange Server 2007 will require 64-bit technology, and IT shops are starting to make the move.

IT managers grumbled last year when Microsoft said it was requiring 64-bit hardware for Exchange Server 2007. Today, 64-bit server sales are booming, and no one is looking back.

"When we first announced that Exchange Server 2007 would be using 64-bit technology only, we had calls from a lot of customers saying that they had recently upgraded their servers," said Ray Mohrman, Microsoft's technical product manager for Exchange. And, they weren't thrilled with the idea that they would have to buy new servers yet again, Mohrman said, although it turned out that most of them had bought 64-bit servers when they upgraded even though they have been configured with 32-bit operating systems.

But what seemed like a major issue a few months ago has faded into the background as IT shops begin to adopt 64-bit technology as part of their regularly scheduled hardware upgrades.

More 64-bit stories:
How 64-bit version of Windows differs architecturally from 32-bit version

Step-by-step virtualization: Simplify 64-bit server adoption

Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. started making 64-bit chips in 2004, but it wasn't until this year that high-tech manufacturers began flooding the marketplace with a higher percentage of 64-bit-capable products.

A recent IDC report reflects the growth of at least one segment of 64-bit servers. In the third quarter of this year, AMD saw its revenue in the x86 server market grow by 79.7% over last year, accounting for 19.8% of all worldwide server revenue, according to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker, released last month.

Growth in the x86 server market means a corresponding growth in 64-bit servers, said IDC. "Three years ago, there really weren't any 64-bit servers around," said Mark Eastwood, IDC's vice president of server research. "But now, 92% of all x86 servers are 64-bit capable," he said.

As companies upgraded their hardware over the last two years, more of them bought 32-bit servers that are 64-bit capable. "A lot of people have already adopted 64-bit technology and they don't even know it," said Jonathan Eunice, a founder and principal IT adviser at Illuminata Inc., a technology consulting firm based in Nashua, N.H. In many cases, although the servers had 64-bit capabilities, they were configured as 32-bit servers based on the customers' needs.

Big companies may have been among the first to buy the servers, but they haven't been the only ones. The biggest of the big enterprise companies usually buy 64-bit servers and use them that way right out of the box. Medium-sized businesses, on the other hand, might buy a 64-bit server but use it as a 32-bit for the time being, according to Richard Opal, vice president of technology integrator Peters & Associates Inc., based in Elmhurst, Ill.

The 64-bit question is now the 64-bit answer

And, while companies may have been reluctant to upgrade to 64-bit servers, there is no going back now, Eunice said. Sixty-four-bit technologies provide more power, efficiency, speed and storage, so it only makes sense to move to that technology when budgets allow for the change.

IT professionals who were worried about a required upgrade to 64-bit servers if they wanted Exchange Server 2007 have moved on in their thinking, said Brian Babineau, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, a high-tech consulting firm in Milford, Mass. "I think we're past all the anxiety about 64-bit technology," Babineau said.

Todd Wilson, operations manager of enterprise services at Johns Hopkins University, switched to 64-bit servers as a participant in the beta version of Exchange Server 2007 and has been satisfied with the new technology.

"Sixty-four bit solves a lot of problems and has a lot more power," Wilson said. "It's a lot cleaner for the applications, and the way it uses memory is a lot more efficient." Johns Hopkins was going to adopt more powerful servers anyway -- it was just a matter of when. "It's just a matter of paying the piper now or paying the piper later," he said.

The 64-bit hardware environment has certainly grown quickly. However, the software that can take advantage of the technology is still limited, said IDC's Eastwood. Operating systems and applications always take longer [to be developed]." Eastwood said applications usually lag behind new server technology or capabilities.

There are exceptions.

"Microsoft's Exchange is certainly the biggest reason to choose 64-bit servers. But there are others like Oracle's enterprise database applications, and there are now 64-bit server virtualization products," said Babineau.

Some analysts were doubtful that companies would eagerly trade up to 64-bit servers; some now say many companies probably have 64-bit technology if they updated their hardware in the last two years. Users can go to the Web sites of AMD and Intel and download utilities to determine if their servers are 64-bit should there be any doubt.

The utilities would be most useful for companies with fewer formal procedures about their network architecture, where configurations may not have been discussed but not written down, Opal said. Users can download those utilities from Intel and AMD.

As chip companies move to larger applications, some of which require 64-bit technology, and complete their upgrade cycles, the 64-bit server market will just continue to grow.

"There will always be a legacy-installed base," said Illuminata's Eunice, no matter what new technology develops. "In the IT industry, there is an old belief that 'if it's not broke, don't touch it -- it's working and we're quite comfortable with it," he said. "But time moves on. There's 64-bit now, and sometime in the future in 2025 or whatever we'll have a 128-bit transition or something else. And we'll have to capitulate and make those changes."

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