Can Business Intelligence Take 64-bit Computing Mainstream?

With 64-bit hardware increasingly pervasive and 64-bit operating systems priced to move, too, it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it?

From larger caching for improved database performance, to supercharged relational OLAP capabilities, business intelligence (BI) could be a killer app for 64-bit. And with 64-bit hardware all the rage, and 64-bit operating systems priced to move, too, it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it?

That’s the 64 million dollar question.

If You Build It, They Won’t Necessarily Come Right Away

For many consumers, the transition from 16-bit to 32-bit took place about a decade ago, months or years after Microsoft Corp. shipped its Windows 95 operating system. Then as now, Windows was late to the game: all flavors of Unix, as well as NetWare, MacOS, OS/2, and the nascent Linux operating system, among others, had already gone 32-bit. Moreover, Intel Corp., Advanced Micro Devices Inc., and a host of other commodity manufacturers had been shipping 32-bit microprocessors for half a decade (or more) at that point.

The takeaway, then, is that almost anyone running Windows 3.1 in 1995 already had 32-bit hardware plumbing inside their PCs.

It wasn’t until Microsoft actually shipped Windows 95, however, that 32-bit-edness got a toe-hold in the mainstream. Even then, as it turns out, 16-bit Windows retained a healthy market share for a few more years. By the end of 1997, however, 32-bit operating systems had become dominant on the desktop: according to International Data Corp. (IDC), Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0 Workstation powered almost 80 percent of desktop machines at that time; Windows 3.1’s market share had dwindled to just under eight percent. Looking back, it’s a wonder it took so long: the advantages of a 32-bit versus a 16-bit addressing scheme were mind-boggling: 32-bit file systems could scale to capacities hundreds of times larger than the 16-bit file systems of the day (DOS, for example, was limited to 2.1 GB), while the 32-bit memory address space scaled to a then-inconceivable 4 GB (compared to the measly 64 MB supported by 16-bit addressing schemes.) So, 32-bit-edness was a great leap forward, to say the least.

The simple fact of the matter, of course, is that folks didn’t embrace 32-bit-edness until they were good and ready. Which is to say that 32-bit uptake really took off once the real-world requirements of most users started to outstrip the capabilities of their existing 16-bit application stacks—and once mainstream ISVs like Microsoft started pushing 32-bit solutions (such as Office 95) in earnest.

64-bit Pieces Falling into Place

A similar thing could happen with 64-bit uptake. For one thing, the hardware plumbing is already in place, and has been for some time: the former Digital Equipment Corp. shipped its first 64-bit Alpha microprocessor in 1992, for example; Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have marketed 64-bit versions of their own chips since the mid-1990s; and Intel’s quasi-mainstream Itanium2 chip—for which Microsoft developed the first 64-bit versions of its Windows operating system and SQL Server 2000 database—is now in its fifth iteration (and sixth overall IA-64 iteration), too.

More importantly, both Intel and AMD have been shipping commodity 64-bit chips (Intel’s server-oriented Xeon with EMT64 extensions and AMD’s server-oriented Opteron with AMD64 extensions) for about two years now.

So most new server hardware—at both the high- and low-end—is 64-bit-ready.

If the lesson of Windows 95 is any example, however, 64-bit-edness won’t go mainstream until customers identify requirements and ISVs start developing applications that demonstrate the value of 64-bit addressing.

In this respect, some industry watchers say, the business intelligence market place could be the tip of the 64-bit spear.

“I actually believe that there is a very large amount of excitement and support for migration from 32-bit BI to 64-bit BI, principally for the memory issues … because in BI, one of the issues is query performance,” says Sanju Bansal, chief operating officer of MicroStrategy Inc. “In our case, in particular, we’ve implemented a very advanced caching architecture… and once you get into a caching architecture, the issue becomes how much can you put into cache, how many users can actually be hitting that cache at the same time, and it’s tough in the 32-bit world with 4 GB of addressable memory.”

Thus far, Bansal says, most 64-bit BI uptake among MicroStrategy’s customers has been on Unix platforms—specifically, AIX and Solaris. “As soon as organizations are able to move to 64-bit, they’re very eager to do so. We saw a lot of movement in 2005 to 64-bit Solaris or AIX,” he comments.

MicroStrategy also ships a 64-bit version of its BI suite for Linux, but Bansal believes the real catalyst for 64-bit BI will be Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 x64 and SQL Server 2005 x64 combination, which finally became a reality late last year. “Sometime this year, concurrent with the release of [MicroStrategy for] 64-bit Windows, we’ll see a large scale movement toward 64-bit. The folks who are looking for the low cost BI solutions, they’re most often deciding between Windows and Linux anyway, and my sense is that right now, they’re reasonably happy with Windows, even though it’s not 64-bit—they’re happy with 32-bit. But I think that’s going to change” when MicroStrategy ships an Windows Server 2003 x64-ready version of its eponymous BI suite, says Bansal.

Tobin Gilman, senior director of product marketing with Hyperion Solutions Corp., agrees—to an extent. Hyperion has shipped a 64-bit version of its Essbase OLAP engine, planning, and ad hoc query tools for slightly more than a year now, says Gilman. During that time, he acknowledges, uptake has been far from mainstream. Thanks to the availability of SQL Server 2005 x64 and the increasing pervasiveness of commodity 64-bit hardware, he argues, it’s only a matter of time before 64-bit BI goes mainstream.

“As you might expect, it’s the customers that are doing the more heavy analytic kinds of capabilities that are starting to push 32-bit toward the limits,” he comments. “We are starting to definitely see more interest in 64-bit throughout the past year. The early adopters are starting to definitely begin to deploy it.”

At this point, Hyperion doesn’t yet support 64-bit versions of its BI software on Windows Server 2003 x64. Instead, Gilman says, his company supports Itanium, which runs another, architecturally different, 64-bit version of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 codebase. And that’s the rub: Commodity 64-bit hardware (Xeon and Opteron) and software (Linux and Windows Server 2003 x64) have in fact arrived, but few if any BI vendors are marketing commodity BI solutions optimized for 64-bit Xeon or Opteron.

The irony, of course, is that 64-bit could be a boon to BI. “For BI, 64-bit is a godsend for many BI tools that leverage memory to perform calculations online. In fact, the introduction of 64-bit technology is already fueling a new set of in-memory based analytical tools that I've been looking at as part of my dashboards research,” says Wayne Eckerson, director of research and services for TDWI. “It also is a godsend for BI tools that require heavy amounts of caching to deliver adequate performance [such as MicroStrategy] or require memory to performance client- or browser-based manipulations [such as Flash and AJAX web front-ends or client OLAP tools].”

That’s just the beginning. Philip Russom, senior manager of research and services with TDWI, says 64-bit addressing could also help speed ETL processing. “The in-memory processing of 64-bit computing will help ETL tools handle even bigger datasets and enable EAI servers to manage whole message queues in a single addressable space,” he comments, noting that, “64-bit will help integration technologies come closer to their holiest of grails—massive data volume and real-time speed. It might even help more organizations attain both, instead of the either/or trade-off that most integration practices deteriorate into today.”

Not Quite a Slam Dunk

Of course, 64-bit-edness must first clear a few hurdles before it goes mainstream—for BI and other applications. For one thing, while it’s possible to run 32-bit programs on Windows Server 2003 x64, there are invariably stability and reliability issues associated with doing so. Windows Server 2003 x64, like its 32-bit Windows predecessors, runs “legacy” 32-bit applications in a discrete subsystem (called Windows-on-Windows 64-bit, or WOW64). Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003 all run 16-bit applications in a similar subsystem, called Windows-on-Windows 32-bit, or WOW32.

What’s more, 64-bit Windows also requires 64-bit device driver support—which might be a concern for organizations that need to bring “legacy” devices online with new systems. And there’s also the issue of 64-bit software development which—while certainly far more straightforward than IA-64 (or Itanium2) programming—is nevertheless a change of pace from 32-bit coding, with new extensions, new development tools… and new problems.

There’s another concern, says consultant and data warehouse manager Mark Madsen. The 32-bit memory barrier (4 GB) was effectively rendered null and void a few years ago, when Intel announced new 36-bit Physical Address Extensions (PAE) for its Xeon chips. (There is a performance hit associated with PAE, however, which could restrict its use in some environments.) The problem, says Madsen, is that few BI tools actually take advantage of PAE. Which begs the question: Just how much pent-up demand is there for 64-bit BI?

“[With PAE] you could already directly address 64 GB of main memory even if the system bus was 32-bit. Then the software curve had to catch up. The operating system had to provide the ability to manage more than 4GB of storage, and all the supporting tools like compilers had to follow suit, and then applications had to take advantage of it, and many still don't,” he comments. “Even with that, it's taken a long time for us to get to the point where 64 GBof main isn't enough memory. DEC tried to push 64-bit in 1996 with theirOracle VLM [Very Large Memory] partnership—they were the only vendor Oracle had at the time, and it went nowhere.”

Coming Soon: Who’s going Commodity 64-bit—And Why?

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