After writing about the coming year of Microsoft releases last week, I got to thinking about another overdue industry trend, 64-bit computing, and the likelihood that 2008 would finally usher in this new era. It seems reasonable that the current generation of Windows client and server releases, combined with pervasive 64-bit hardware in the market and other recent trends will finally make this happen. But it's unclear how quickly the changeover will occur.
The server-side is easier to predict. Though server makers have been shipping 64-bit hardware for years now, most server OS installs to date have been of the 32-bit variety. That should change in 2008. First, Windows Server 2008 and its competitors are generally available in 64-bit variants that don't give up anything important in terms of compatibility or functionality but deliver big on scalability and capability. The move toward virtualization is going to help as well: Whether you're just consolidating older servers or moving to a more pervasive virtualization-based environment, 64-bits is clearly the way to go as the memory headroom is almost exponentially better than 32-bit systems can provide.
And although some 32-bit servers can run fine on 64-bit server OSs, the move to 64-bit servers such as Exchange Server 2007 will only fuel the transition. Other servers, like SQL Server 2008, will actually ship in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but the benefits of the 64-bit versions are so vast, I'd be surprised to see 32-bit versions of SQL Server 2008 deployed widely in larger companies.
The desktop, as always, is a bit hazier. Although Microsoft should be commended for shipping feature-complete 64-bit versions of Windows Vista alongside the more mainstream 32-bit versions, the company essentially relegated it to sideshow status by not shipping 32- and 64-bit code together in the Vista retail boxes (except for in the high-end Ultimate edition, which has not sold very well). Yes, businesses can choose to adopt 64-bit versions of Vista as easily as 32-bit versions, but why bother? Aside from some minor security benefits, x64 versions of Vista are still less compatible than 32-bit versions. And for those special cases where the memory advantages of 64-bit are required, those users are already using 64-bit products. Vista hasn't really added much to the value equation.
For business desktops, there just isn't much advantage right now to Vista x64. But that might not matter. Going forward, the next Windows Server release will be 64-bit only, and it's likely that the client will follow down the same path after Windows 7 ships. (No bets yet, please.) 64-bit isn't so much a choice anymore as it is a matter of time.