Both Intel and AMD have announced new desktop-ready CPU chips based on 64-bit architecture. These chips, which until recently were designated for file servers, are now being marketed to consumers and as office desktop systems. The advanced capabilities and performance of these chips seems to portend a migration to 64-bit architecture, but does that necessarily mean we can expect new 64-bit personal computers on our desktops soon?
A desktop using 64-bit architecture can manipulate more data than current 32-bit systems because of the larger instruction word size inherent to the design—that is the simple definition, but what does that mean in practical terms. The benefit of 64-bit computing that is most noticeable is the ability to address more RAM memory, theoretically up to 18 million terabytes. Compare that to the current 32-bit limit of 4 GB, and you can appreciate the magnitude of the difference.
With terabytes of RAM, you could conceivably cache a significantly large database directly into your desktop and manipulate it in memory, eliminating the storage and distribution bottlenecks developers must account for in current application designs. The increased efficiency and performance of manipulating data in this manner will also mean a complete change in the way users think about data manipulation. The power to work with such large amounts of data will grant users greater control over the data, which could create headaches for application developers trying to maintain data integrity.
One other major benefit to 64-bit computing is security in the form of better cryptography. The architecture's capability to address larger integers means encryption algorithms can use keys with larger numbers, improving the overall security of the scheme. The ability of 64-bit computing to better secure data from prying eyes may also make it the standard platform of choice for many industries—especially those dealing with recent privacy laws and regulations, such as HIPPA.
It seems inevitable that 64-bit architecture will overtake the 32-bit systems you code for today. But for developers, the key question may be what platform you will be coding for this time next year. How quickly the migration to 64-bit architecture will take place is the big unanswered question. Microsoft is beta testing their 64-bit version of Windows XP, and Linux and Mac OS X already have 64-bit versions. As a developer, are you ready for the 64-bit migration?
On the front lines
I'm going to conduct my own little informal survey to answer some of these questions. Jump into the article discussion and let us know if you are currently working on an application based on 64-bit architecture or have plans to do so in the near future. What benefit does the architecture provide for your application and on what OS will it run?
If you would like to get more background on 64-bit architecture, check out some of these articles and Web sites: "An Introduction to 64-bit Computing and x86-64" "64-Bit CPUs: What You Need to Know" Windows XP 64-bit Edition Power Mac G5 The Official Home Page of the IA-64 Linux Project
Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.