Why Windows Server 2003 x64?

This month Microsoft has released the full version of Windows Server 2003 x64 Editions.

These run on the AMD Opteron and Intel EM64T processors and, already, the IT discussion boards are full of the usual chat about the latest in operating systems.

What do you really get? Doesn't it mean extra costs in terms of software and hardware? I'm already happy with what I've got. Why would I really need anything faster?

If we look back into the history of development of Microsoft Windows based operating systems, we see that exactly the same questions were asked between the following Windows operating systems.

16-bit - Windows 3.x to 16-32-bit - Windows 9x

32-bit - Windows NT to Windows 2Kx

32-64-bit - Itanium

And now the full 64-bit Windows XP Professional and Windows 2003 Server editions.

If history is anything to go by, a huge majority will be on 64-bit operating systems within the next five years.

So let's get under the hood and see what the 64-bit version, of an already fast and secure Windows 2003 operating system, really gives us?

What You Get

64-bit architecture has been around for several years now and with Windows Server 2003 x64 we now have an operating system that can properly take advantage of this architecture.

As a result, running 64-bit Windows on 64-bit architecture will mean that, apart from being a superior number cruncher for databases and scientific applications, 64-bit servers will be able to deal more efficiently with many applications.

This is due to the fact that a 64-bit operating system can access more memory and make more efficient use of a 64-bit processor and motherboard, and support a larger cache.

For example, the enterprise version of Windows 2003 Server can access up to 64GB RAM, whilst the equivalent version Windows 2003 Server x64 Enterprise edition can access a phenomenal 1TB.

What this means, in an IT layman's terms, is that far more Terminal Server connections can be effectively managed, handling of file and print connections will be faster and more efficient, plus many of the CPU and memory intensive functions of maintaining and managing active directory.

If you already work with some of these applications, such as Terminal Server, you will know that it has never scaled brilliantly on the 32-bit platform. Now, you will have the computing muscle, in a single box, under a fully fledged 64-bit operating system.

So What's The Downside?

Well none….ok I'm kidding you. Microsoft believes the majority of 32-bit applications should work and migrate well under Win x64. However, although 32-bit software will, in principle, be ok, this is the final nail in the coffin of any 16-bit software you still have lying around (although I'm sure some smart cookie will supply you with a 16-bit emulator!).

In addition, any 32-bit software that uses 32-bit access to the kernel will also not work.

Programs that have used this kind of access have been virus checkers and virtual system creators such as Microsoft Virtual PC.

In addition, a few major applications, such as Exchange Server 2003, also depend on 32-bit drivers, however, the next version, E12, will have support for x64.

In the case of the virus checking software, you may have an undefended system, so ensure your vendor has a 64-bit version available before allowing installation of unknown software or Internet connections.

In addition, some of your existing hardware may not work unless you have 64-bit drivers for them - so make sure that all the devices you connect to your systems are compatible.

What about Cost

So how much is it? Well errr nothing. At least it will be nothing providing:-

  1. You are upgrading a licensed copy of Windows XP Professional or Windows Server 2003
  2. You purchased it between 31 March 2003 and 30 June 2005.
  3. Your software is running on a 64-bit processor.

If you are buying from scratch, the price should be the same as the 32-bit version.

In addition, just as many PC vendors supply by default a version of Windows on their platforms, they will now be supplying 64-bit Windows as standard on their 64-bit systems. In all other cases, you need to check your licensing deal with Microsoft.

Doesn't Microsoft Already have a 64-bit version of Windows?

Yes. It's called Windows 2003 Server for Itanium based systems and it has been out for over two years.

However, it is very different in its application and is one heck of a powerful system.

As a result, it currently holds several number crunching world records.

The Itanium based Windows operating system is aimed at very high-end mission critical systems running massive large scale databases and line of business applications.

It can take advantage of many features of the hardware, such as self-correcting mechanisms.

These mechanisms make use of sophisticated algorithms, such as the ability to predict failures based on past patterns, which in turn allows the O/S to instantly detect and correct problems without the need for reboots.

Windows 2003 x64 versions, on the other hand, is aimed at business processes that do not require this level of specialised hardware involvement and will eventually super-cede Windows 32-bit versions.

The key difference, however, is that Windows x64 versions will run 32-bit and 64-bit applications, whilst Itanium will run 32-bit applications, but not as fast as a native 32-bit O/S due to the translation process.

Click here for further information on the differences

Are there any other reasons why I should get 64-bit Windows?

Windows 2003 Server x64 will run the majority of your 32-bit programs better than Windows 2003 Server and, to all intents and purposes, it is exactly the same as Windows 2003 Server with SP1.

Whenever a newer, more powerful, operating system comes out, people always say they will never move across.

But history has shown that with larger supported architectures, software vendors can pack more power, sophistication, functionality and security into their software.

Beta versions of x64-based versions of SQL Server, Exchange, and Office are almost here.

In addition, Visual Studio 2005 will support native x64 development of code. You will not be able to use or even test drive any of these products unless you have Windows x64 operating systems.

Click here for a comparison of the features supported by 32 and 64-bit Windows

Click here for a free 180 day trial version of Windows Server 2003 x64

Ben Chai is a founder member of www.itproportal.com author of Migrating from Windows NT to Windows 2000 from MSPress and director of www.Lanix.co.uk. He was one of the first people in the world to achieve the combined Novell MCNE and Microsoft MCSE accreditation.