Saturday, March 27, 2010

32bit or 64bit OS?

Ah, for most people, the answer would be a something like "Er, What?". Clearly it shouldn't matter, and I think that is important to keep in mind. Because I think it's getting to the point where this is probably the case.

In the Windows world, we more or less moved over to 32 bit with Windows 95. What is 32 bit anyway? Well, imagine 32 1's or 0's in a row. That's a representation of a number. It's 2 to the power of 32, or 2x2x2x2...x2 (32 times), which = 4 billion or so. Now, there are 8 bits in a byte, and, well, I'll let wiki explain the rest if you are interested. The practical implication of this is that you are limited to 4GB of memory. Which is a lot, right?

Well, no. Not really any more. And certainly not if you want to do anything serious, like a database or virtualization. Even consumer PC's these days, since the hungry-hungry-hippo called Vista was let loose, have come with 2GB ram as a reasonable medium standard. If you have even remotely paid any attention to spec changes over the years you will know that they double every now and then. So we are only one double away from hitting that 4GB limit.

There was a 64 bit version of windows XP. It was very much the bleeding edge. Almost nothing worked on it, and peripherals in particular were the pain point. Getting that printer or scanner, video card etc to work was a real gamble, and most times you got snake-eyes. Vista was actually better, as the 64-bit version was released at launch date, and flagged that hardware vendors had to start producing 64-bit drivers from now on or else. And they have. Of course, the 32/64 bit question was somewhat hidden by the overall horribleness that was Vista. Windows 7 is really just Vista done right, and to be honest, the latest patched version of Vista is actually not too bad. However, it's reputation is permanently tarnished and much like Windows ME will spend it's eternity in History as a dud, a lemon and a turkey.

Well, most sane people, and those cautious in businesses around the world, have largely been hanging on the XP platform waiting to jump over Vista. It has helped that since the Core2 the CPU's have more or less also been "good enough" to keep going for a few years. The GFC has not helped IT budgets much either, so this has also influenced things.

Anywhoo, at my place of work we recently replaced a bunch of XP machines. What did we get? Well, some intel i7 based Dell boxes, with Window 7 and 6GB of RAM. Yours with a 23" LCD and Office for around $1700 Australian - which is a pretty good deal in the current market. Yes, I know Office 2010 is just around the corner. Sometimes these buying opportunity windows open up just briefly and you go for it when you can, even if it's not 100% ideal. I also think of the permanently revolving doors you see at some hotels -- if you wait for it to stop you are waiting forever.

So, perhaps you are wondering, which did we get - the 32 or 64 bit version of Windows 7? Well, the clue should be the 6GB RAM. Are you paying attention? Stay with me here!

So, how have i found the 64 bit experience? On the whole, like the rest of Win7, it's almost flawless. Really, the water is fine, jump right on in. With new hardware, you know the PC itself is going to work. The trick then is any legacy software and hardware. In my environment the biggest bugbear was Access 95 databases we were still using. This was the final push for me to upgrade them all to 2000 format, and I'm glad I did. My previous post goes over this in tragic detail if you are interested in that saga.

The other problems I had were --
  1. Installing SQL 2000 client tools. The installer recognised the 64 bit environment and didn't like the idea of putting the 32 bit version on the CD there. Fortunately, I found that you can still install it by running an installer buried a bit on the CD. A google search turned up this solution in under 5 minutes. Yes, and caused by trying to continue to use old software note.
  2. Printing to our copier at work required downloading a new driver. Printing to an older, less popular and consumer grade printer also provided interesting problems, but I was even able to do this using the Vista driver.

Overall, I have (so far) not had a problem I have not been able to solve. This is as much a testament to Win7 as the 32/64 issue, but I think there has been significant evolution of the software over the years to prepare for this moment.

You may be wondering - will we have to move to a 128bit OS in a few years time? Well, there is that whole "never say never" thing (which is clearly self-contradicting, but that's not what I mean). Remember that each extra bit doubles the number it represents. So a 64 bit number isn't double a 32 bit number, it's 4 billion or so larger. That's a LOT of memory (16 billion GB). Like, probably as much as has been manufactured in the history of mankind, or not even. In one PC. Doesn't seem all that likely, does it? So, I think this is probably safe to say the this is the last of these kinds of changes we will have to make in our lifetimes. I've lived through 8, 16, 32 and now 64 bit OS's. Change is pain, but to be honest, this is the least painful of these transitions I have experienced.

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