Bits and cores

Von Stefan Hammond

What do Apple?s new mp3 gizmo and 64-bit computing have in common? They?re both products of Moore?s Law (and its corollaries), which state that growth in data-processing products is exponential rather than linear. In algebra, twice 32 is 64, but in the world of 64-bit computing, things aren?t quite that simple.

The new mp3 machine relies on flash-memory with data-storage unimaginable a decade ago. A 4GB chunk of non-volatile RAM in a tiny box (powered by a watch-battery) allows users to ride the train from Beijing to Urumqi while listening to Wagner?s Ring of the Nibelung opera. Just as these consumer devices have changed the way users consume audio products, so too is the shift to 64-bit computing changing the way enterprises evaluate their tech processes.

The basics

The term refers to processors with registers that store 64-bit numbers, and naturally performance increases are expected. But 64-bit?s greatest asset may be in its ability to utilize more physical RAM--a 32-bit machine tops out at 4GB while a 64-bit setup can address up to 16 terabytes (16TB, or about 16,000GB) of RAM. As you?d expect, software and drivers must be optimized for 64-bit use.

Dual-core also represents a huge change in PC-processor architecture--squeezing two chips into the same space as one, bringing the increased performance of a two processor system but with less hassle. Intel and AMD have been quick to launch dual-core flavors of their existing processors. Intel?s Pentium D 820, 830 and 840 chips run at 2.8GHz, 3GHz and 3.2GHz respectively and offer 1MB of Level 2 cache per core. The top-of-the-range Pentium Extreme Edition 840 also has two processors running at 3.2GHz with 1MB of Level 2 cache, but adds "hyperthreading": Intel technology that emulates two processors on a single core, presenting four processors as far as the OS is concerned.

AMD?s Athlon X2 range starts with the 4200+ running at 2.2GHz with 512KB of Level 2 cache per core. The 4400+ runs at the same speed but doubles the cache to 1MB. The 4600+ and 4800+ run at 2.4GHz but with 512KB and 1MB of Level 2 cache respectively.

Any performance boost will only be seen in apps that support multithreading: a technique that allows a program to divide its workload into a set of threads that can be executed individually. In a dual-processor system each chip can work on a thread independently, speeding things up.

"In 2004, the x86 server industry embarked on a two-step process to deliver 64-bit computing," said Gartner analyst John Enck in a May 2005 report. Enck said that the first step was the introduction of x86 processors that support 64-bit extended addressing. "Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was first to market with its Opteron processor in 2004; Intel introduced 64-bit extended addressing support in its Pentium and Xeon lines in 2005," said Enck. "Intel and AMD are effectively adding 64-bit support to all of their x86 server processors; hence, by year-end 2006, all x86 servers being shipped will support 64-bit extended addressing."

A 64-bit processor is required, but software support is also essential. "The operating system plays a critical role in this area, because running a 32-bit operating system on an x86 processor with 64-bit support effectively disables 64-bit support," said Enck. "A 64-bit operating system is required to enable the 64-bit hardware."

Making the switch

Simple algebra doesn?t apply in the 64-bit space--it?s not simply "32 x 2". As Enck put it: "Application performance improvements will be the result of more efficient memory access or improved computational functions, rather than an overall increase in processing power."

Applications must be modified to support 64-bit operations. However, "64-bit computing is not new," said Kris Chan, director of enterprise storage & servers, HP Hong Kong. "Many customers in Hong Kong (use) 64-bit computing by deploying their applications on HP 9000 and HP Integrity servers based on PA-RISC and 64-bit Intel Itanium architecture."

"Customers get improved performance and scalability with 64-bit servers by processing more data on the same clock cycle, addressing more memory and running some numerical calculations faster," said Chan. "This is because workloads that are memory- or processor-intensive can benefit from dramatic performance and scalability improvements."

Chan added this performance gain would allow users to achieve their desired level of computing with less hardware and software, allowing them to invest their resources in "other innovative areas to support business growth."

Chan said that all of his firm?s servers currently use AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon chips and thus support 64-bit architecture. "I believe all UNIX applications are running on 64-bit platform today in Hong Kong," he added, "while many Linux and Windows applications are being migrated from 32-bit to 64-bit."

"64-bit is fast becoming the norm of day to day computing in light of the Microsoft?s Longhorn launch in 2006," said Thomas Tong, senior product marketing manager for AMD Hong Kong. "Enterprise (and) SMBs alike need to face with the fact that their newly invested 32-bit system will be obsolete way before the end of the system lifecycle."

"Compatibility," said Raymond Hung, product marketing manager, business marketing organization, Microsoft Hong Kong. "The largest difference between 32-bit to 64-bit and 16-bit to 32-bit is backwards compatibility."

Hung said that at the application level, the OS level and "even (the) machine code level, the x64 platform provides a very high level of compatibility." He added that the move from 16-bit to 32-bit saw "problems running many 16-bit applications in 32-bit a result, the road from 16- to 32-bit took much longer (around 5 to 6 years) for the market to completely change over."

"It took more than 10 years for the IT industry to migrate from 16-bit computing to 32-bit computing," said William Wu, regional platform marketing manager, server platforms group, Intel Asia Pacific. "We expect the transition from 32-bit computing to 64-bit computing to be shorter."

"Switching from 16-bit DOS applications to 32-bit Windows applications required not just platform upgrades, but total rewrites," said Chan. "On the other hand, almost all 64-bit OS?s come with compatibility mode that will support 32-bit applications running on 64-bit hardware."

Wu said that Intel?s customers in Hong Kong include Phillips-Van Heusen, NTK (HK) Ltd and Tai Fook Securities Group. "Based on past experience, the hardware supporting 64-bit computing will be available earlier than the software," said Wu. "By the end of this year, we expect that more than 90 percent of Intel server processors shipped will support 64-bit computing...for desktop and mobile processors (we expect it will be) more than 50 percent."

Pluses for HK SMEs

"For medium-sized businesses and enterprises, server consolidation and virtualization is a major benefit brought by 64-bit computing," said Microsoft?s Hung. He pointed out this was particularly true in Hong Kong, where office space is always expensive.

"For SMEs, since hardware now comes with more processing power, more applications can be hosted on the same hardware rather than having a number of servers," said Hung. "For multi-core processors, Microsoft server software that is currently licensed by the number of processors on the server will continue to be licensed in that model for server hardware that has dual-core or multi-core processors."

"64-bit computing not only provides immediate and significant benefits to large-scale mission-critical enterprise datacenters," said Intel?s Wu, "(but) the same platform solution also delivers benefits to SMEs in areas such as database transactions and multitasking environments."

"SMEs will benefit from the fast transaction process in database operations, and run more applications on a single platform (application consolidation) while enjoying a lower total cost of ownership (TCO)," said Wu.

"Many enterprises and SMEs in Hong Kong have already adopted 64-bit computing," said Chan from HP. "Tai Fook Securities deployed their online trading application on HP Integrity Superdome servers based on 64-bit Intel Itanium 2 processors. Campion International Development--a local manufacturing firm--runs ABAS (ERP package software) (using) 64-bit Linux on HP Integrity servers. Both of these companies experience significant performance gain as well as cost savings by running their applications on 64-bit servers."

Liquid-cooled speedburning

Enhanced performance is all well and good, but what about heat accumulation and cooling strategies? Does the advent of 64-bit computing mean that liquid-cooled datacenters will become commonplace?

"The semiconductor industry does face thermal and heat dissipation challenges when it pursues better processor/application performance," said Wu, who praised his firm?s investment in R&D as an enabler for breakthroughs in thermal management as well as performance. "Intel?s engineers ensure that the company will continue to drive Moore?s Law well into the future with new technologies such as the 65 nanometer (nm) logic technology, sleep transistors and second-generation strained silicon," he said. "Other power management technologies such as demand-based switching also help to overcome thermal issues."

But Wu also said that "system level thermal cooling technologies are not yet up to standard." A natural or forced air cooling approach is still the most reliable way to cool a server system. With the introduction of the multi-core processor technology, Intel will continue to advance the processor/application performance without the need for liquid cooling systems."

"In some super high-performance computing environments, liquid cooling systems may need to be deployed, but, the trend is towards external, non-contact cooling technology," said Wu. "For example, the "Project Columbia" supercomputer designed by the (US-based) National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) passes hot air generated by the system through a liquid-cooled rack door, and the thermal exchange takes place outside the building."

HP?s Chan was less concerned about the heat issue. "Processor manufacturing technologies are improving...we have 90nm and (will) soon (have) 65 nm technologies," he said. "This technology will make more compact processors operating on lower voltage possible which will lead to lower power requirements."

Chan said that Itanium CPUs running on his firm?s Integrity line servers" have one of the lowest electrical power consumption per computing thread vs other RISC CPUs," and were more compact as well. "The compact design of (the) Integrity rx8620 server is largely attributed to HP?s industry-leading thermodynamic design technologies used in our enterprise servers portfolio," he said.

64-bit to become the norm

"As more vendors are supporting 64-bit computing, this will become the norm...some vendors will only ship 64-bit servers by the end of this year," said Chan. "This will (drive) adoption of 64-bit computing in 2006."

Given the inertia of legacy systems and big IT departments, we may well see 32GB iPods before most Hong Kong?s IT administrators are comfortable with 64-bit computing. But the writing is on the wall. Think exponential.

-- IDG staff contributed to this story