Among the factors to consider, as companies ponder Windows 7 migrations, is whether to run a 32 bit or 64 bit version of the operating system. We look at the reasons why and what companies are saying.
Cost isn’t the biggest consideration for Compassionate Care Hospice CIO Jeffrey Bolden when it comes to upgrading his 1,650 employees to Windows 7. Rather, in a “recession-proof business,” Bolden is focused on moving toward a 64-bit environment.
Compassionate Care, the nation’s fourth largest hospice care provider with locations in 12 states, is presently running Windows XP and Windows Vista desktops and a half dozen server configurations. Their migration plans will occur on an as-needed basis, as well as when new staff are added, Bolden says. Foremost on his mind, when a full-blown migration does occur, is moving to a 64-bit environment. He’s looking for the ability “to run certain distributed database applications in the field that are currently running in a more centralized way,” he explains. “You’re going to design applications entirely differently because you’ll have much faster processing speeds.’’
Bolden is far from alone in his thought processes. As companies plan their migration strategies, the cost of upgrading is just one factor they should be contemplating. Since most new computers today come with 64-bit processors, companies need to upgrade their infrastructure as part of their move to Windows 7 desktops.
The 32- or 64-bit architecture refers to the memory address length that can be referenced by the processor. A 64-bit PC can handle larger amounts of information than a 32-bit system. Since it can use more RAM—4 gigabytes and up—a 64-bit computer can be more responsive when running several programs at the same time.
Simply installing the faster operating system doesn’t necessarily guarantee the application will run faster, since most software has traditionally been optimized for a 32-bit OS. All Windows applications must be tested on a 64-bit platform, experts emphasize, and companies need to make sure they have the latest hardware and drivers available before deciding to step up to 64-bit.
“I don’t think it’s sunk into everyone’s consciousness what’s going on with 64-bit and what they should do about it,’’ says Michael Surkan, a Bellevue, Washington-based IT consultant, and a former Windows program manager at Microsoft. “Every program anyone writes … you need to make sure it runs well on a 64-bit machine.”
A 64-bit computer can run 32-bit software, but it’s not an optimum condition, notes Michael Cherry, research vice president of Operating Systems, at Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis firm that examines Microsoft strategy and products. “So if you buy a new machine today and it comes with a 64-bit processor and 4 GB of memory, which is a pretty common configuration, if you run a 32-bit [program] on that configuration then the 32-bit operating system can only address the first three gigabytes of that RAM,” Cherry says. “You’re not using all of the resources you’ve paid for.” Since there aren’t many computer systems still being sold with 32-bit operating systems, most enterprises end up buying 64-bit systems by default anyway, he observes.
There is a difference of opinion over whether 64-bit Windows 7 is more secure than the 32–bit version, depending upon whom you ask. Microsoft claims more malware is written for 32-bit systems, and that 64-bit Windows 7 contains security measures such as PatchGuard, making it is safer to run. However, some security vendors say that since 32-bit is more ubiquitous, it sees more malware right now, but since it is a piece of software, it can easily execute on a 64-bit system too.
“We hear from PC makers and historical trends indicate that a majority of new PCs in the U.S. will be running 64-bit Windows 7 and globally about one fifth of new PCs will be running 64-bit Windows 7,’’ says a Microsoft spokesperson. A majority of enterprises are already running some PCs with 64-bit Windows, she says.
For the City of Miami, which has approximately 2,500 users and has already begun migrating to Windows 7, the choice between 32-bit and 64-bit is hardware based. The migration will run smoothly “as long as we can find all of the drivers,” says James E. Osteen, Jr., the city’s assistant director of Information Technology. “And that’s still the big question with Windows 7, as there are still some drivers, especially around printers, that we haven’t found 64-bit printers for.”
The IT department is aggressively moving the City of Miami’s servers to 64-bit, but, he says, they are “lagging a little bit on moving to 64 bit on desktop migrations, since that’s being done on an as-needed basis’’ due to the economy.
The bigger issue for Osteen’s department is dealing with legacy hardware. While they haven’t fully embraced 64-bit, Osteen says they realize it’s something they will have to do. The performance is “a lot better … so we see the value of moving to it,” he says. IT recently started some pilot implementations with 64-bit desktop computers and servers.
Cherry concurs that the real issue with 64-bit isn’t so much about running the software—since that can be addressed in a variety of ways, including virtualization—as it is about whether device drivers exist for a company’s hardware. “An organization may have a certain printer in use and one of the key things they have to look at before moving to 64-bit is whether the printer has a 64-bit device driver.”
He advises companies to check three key things:
- Whether they can buy 64-bit processors at a reasonable price.
- Make a list of all specialized devices, such as printers, scanners and projectors, and determine if all the device drivers are there.
- Make sure there is no application in the organization that won’t run on the 64-bit version of the operating system.
“You don’t want to start this and find out there’s some software you need, like DVD burning software, because it works directly with hardware or backup software that talks to the hardware,” says Cherry. “Generally you won’t have a problem but that doesn’t mean out there isn’t one program out there that is.”
Surkan estimates that 5-10% of 32-bit programs won’t run on a 64-bit OS.
Batterymarch Financial Management, a Boston-based subsidiary of global asset management firm Legg Mason, is now testing Windows 7 on some of its core applications as it plans a slow migration. IT conducted a review of both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows 7, and selected the latter for a number of reasons, according to Brian McCracken, manager of Network Systems.
Over 95% of the firm’s computers are already 64-bit and the other 5% will be replaced with in the year, McCracken says. There were other factors, too. The 64-bit version lets the company run applications on systems with greater then 4 GB of memory; 80% of their core applications were designed to run on 64-bit systems; their peripheral devices all can run on a 64-bit OS; and the 64-bit version gives Batterymarch the ability to run applications using Windows XP Mode and Virtual PC.
Surkan agrees that 64-bit Windows 7 is really the way to go because of its ability to use more memory than the 32-bit version, even if a PC has more memory installed.
For companies just beginning the process, Surkan recommends installing the 64-bit version of Windows 7 and running a few applications to see if the programs work smoothly. “If they want to go the safe route and don’t want to do testing, they can go with the 32-bit version,” he acknowledges, saying that “that’s a valid option.” But, Surkan says, “I would hate to see companies not go to the 64-bit version because of fear of the unknown.”
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