Adios, Itanium: Applix Pushes 64-bit BI for the Rest of Us

This week, Applix unveiled a Windows x64-ready version of its OLAP engine. Pre-release demand, officials claim, was through the roof.

Microsoft Corp.’s commodity 64-bit operating environments could be just the catalyst for the 64-bit-i-zation of the enterprise. Just one thing’s missing, of course: 64-bit versions of application software designed to run on Redmond’s Windows Server 2003 x64 operating environment.

They’re in the pipeline, however. This week, for example, OLAP powerhouse Applix Inc. unveiled a Windows x64-ready version of its TM1 OLAP engine. Applix—with its in-memory OLAP expertise—is just the kind of vendor that can benefit from the much larger (1 TB versus an effective 3 GB) 64-bit address space. Company officials say that customers—many of which already have 64-bit commodity hardware idling in their data centers—are eagerly anticipating the new release. Also this week, Applix announced enhanced integration with SAP AG’s ERP stack. Gone is Applix’ less-than-ideal ODBO connectivity into SAP; TM1 now sports RFC-standard ABAP connectivity.

Business intelligence (BI) industry watchers cite a few reasons why 64-bitedness will 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 or require memory to perform client- or browser-based manipulations [such as Flash and AJAX web front-ends or client OLAP tools].”

Dave Menninger, vice-president of marketing with Applix, says this is particularly true among his company’s customer base. Applix customers, Menninger claims, have embraced TM1 because disk-based alternatives—which can obviously scale beyond TM1’s 3 GB in-memory limitation—simply aren’t fast enough.

“One of the hurdles of trying to apply competitive technology is that most of the competitive offerings are disk-based, and disk speed—unlike processing performance—just has not increased as dramatically over the years. Disk density has increased, certainly, but disk speed becomes a real obstacle to retrieving data when seek times on average are 1.5 to 3 milliseconds, even with aggressive caching,” he comments. “Without any [disk] optimization techniques, the difference could literally be 1 million to 1 [in favor of TM1].”

Menninger, like others in the industry, says that Windows Server x64 should “become ubiquitous”—and this is in spite of the fact, he argues, that few vendors have delivered x64-ready applications. “[64-bit Windows] is not going on there because it allows more memory, it’s on there because [64-bit processors are] becoming the default configuration. The reason x64 is going to succeed is that it runs both 32-bit and 64-bit applications,” he comments.

This is true—to a large extent; 64-bit chips can power 32-bit operating environments as well or better than their 32-bit predecessors.

In the Windows x64 world, however, 32-bit code doesn’t execute natively: Windows Server 2003 x64, like its 32-bit Windows predecessors, instead hosts “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.

There are invariably stability and reliability issues associated with this approach, however. 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. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?id=7845) All that being said, Menninger says that for RAM-dependent products such as TM1, 64-bitedness is a no-brainer. “It enables over a 250-fold increase in the amount of memory that you can access, and even if practically speaking you can’t actually use [i.e., conceivably install] that much memory today [in existing systems], for RAM-based products such as ours, that’s a tremendous boost,” he comments. “Because these chips are becoming the default, because they’re being manufactured in larger quantities, that’s going to further reduce the price point, and it’s going to result in systems with larger [support for] base memory.”

In the here and now, Menninger says, even customers with comparatively small base-level memory configurations can benefit by moving to Windows x64 and Applix’ new 64-bit TM1. “We have a 32-bit application today, and in Windows 32 environments, you can only really access 3 GB of memory [1 GB is reserved for the OS],” he points out. “But in the x64 version, those same exact applications can access 4 GB of memory. You get a 33 percent boost in the amount of memory just literally by moving to the operating system.”

Applix Cozies up to SAP

Between one-fifth and one-quarter of TM1 customers are also SAP shops, Menninger says, but—until now, anyway—they were sometimes frustrated by the limitations of Applix’ ODBO-based SAP connectivity strategy. Now that TM1 has gone ABAP, he says, they’ve got more incentive to expand their use of it with their bread and butter SAP applications. This means not just using TM1 to crunch SAP financial information, but to expand the scope of performance management to include operational performance management, too.

“We have a certified odbo interface today, but SAP imposes some limits on this—[such as that] it’s only available in Win32, and will only return 1 million rows. Another issue is that ODBO has no inherent knowledge of the metadata, so we’ve switched to an RFC ABAP interface, and by virtue of that we’re able to solve all of the problems listed above.”

Menninger notes that business performance management (BPM) is also being addressed: “We see BI evolving into BPM, applied largely to finance, and we’re giving a label to the application of BPM outside of finance as operational performance management. This isn’t just something we’ve cooked up: we survey our customers annually, and 40 percent of our customers have indicated to us that they’re applying [BPM] outside of finance.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.