Is 64-Bit Too Extravagant?

Is a 64-bit SQL Server in your future? Check out this advertisement for an upcoming Microsoft Webcast series about 64-bit computing:

"Did you know the majority of new server shipments today contain 64-bit processing power? The shift to mainstream 64-bit computing is underway, and Microsoft wants to help you gear up for this important milestone in our industry. 64-bit computing support is available today in our next wave of 64-bit products, including Windows Server 2003 x64, Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005, and the .NET Framework 2.0."

I was surprised that most new server shipments contain 64-bit processing power because that's not my experience in the SQL Server space. Some clarification from Microsoft helped me understand that this statement in based on the fact that AMD's newest line of 64-bit processors provide the ability to natively run both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows and other OSs. So, many server shipments might have 64-bit technology, but that doesn't mean all those servers are running a 64-bit OS. You can find information about the 64-bit Webcast series at Most of the live Webcasts will be over by the time you read this because the series started November 1. However, you can view archived Webcasts.

I got to thinking a bit (pun intended ) about 64-bit computing and SQL Server. When SQL Server 2000 first provided 64-bit support, I was intrigued but not terribly excited. I figured that the primary reason for running 64-bit SQL Server would be to provide a power boost for large data warehouses that needed huge amounts of memory, or for big, high-end online transaction processing (OLTP) systems like the ones a NASDAQ or Barnes & Noble would use. Don't get me wrong; meeting those needs is incredibly important. But I didn't think the new technology would affect the low- to mid-range server space. Since then, I've come to realize that 64-bit SQL Server can provide surprising performance benefits for high-end OLTP systems that have lots of stored procedures because 32-bit SQL Server's artificial limitations on the procedure cache's size can constrain mid-range OLTP systems—even those that have large amounts of memory.

I think 64-bit computing provides a compelling argument to consider buying AMD processors today, even if you don't plan on shifting to 64-bit computing for a year or more. In the past, SQL Server customers haven't given that much consideration to AMD-based boxes. There simply wasn't a compelling enough argument to leave the "safe" Intel route. However, AMD now offers the Opteron line of processors, which can run native 32-bit and 64-bit systems. These processors are priced considerably less than Itanium-based systems. SQL Server 2000 64-bit doesn't run on the 64-bit native mode of the Opteron, but 64-bit SQL Server 2005 will run on Opteron servers you can buy today. SQL Server 2000 32-bit will run on those same servers.

I was speaking to a reader at SQL Server Magazine Connections in Las Vegas this week. The reader's company is new servers in the next few weeks, and they know they won't be able to replace them for at least 3 years. After all, not everyone has the budgets to buy new servers every 6 months. They're taking a hard look at 4-CPU Opteron boxes from Hewlett-Packard because this solution will give them a cost-effective way to run 32-bit today and 64-bit next year on the same hardware. Are you buying a server today but don't need 64-bit or the extra memory right now? Perhaps there's value in considering an AMD server. Your new server will run your 32-bit applications today, and next year, when SQL Server 2005 ships, you can simply install a new OS and SQL Server 2005 on your existing hardware. Intel doesn't offer that option today.

I remember years ago when servers with 4 CPUs and 4GB of memory seemed extravagant. Today, I tell most of my mid-range customers that doing the performance study to see whether you can get by with a less expensive server will often cost more than simply going with a 4X 4GB box in the first place. 64-bit technology seems extravagant today, but I suspect that at some point in the not-so-distant future we'll reach the tipping point when most new servers will run 64-bit platforms.

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