Microsoft ready to send 64-bit Windows 2000 to developers

The new "preview" version of 64-bit Windows 2000 is a necessary step along the road to bringing a Windows operating system to computers based on Intel's next-generation Itanium chips.

Microsoft has completed a near-final version of its 64-bit edition of Windows 2000 that will be sent to all software developers with Itanium prototype computers, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said today.

The new "preview" version

Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald says most businesses will greet the latest beta of Microsoft's 64-bit version of Windows 2000 with little interest.

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of 64-bit Windows 2000 is a necessary step along the road to bringing a Windows operating system to computers based on Intel's next-generation Itanium chips. Intel and Microsoft see the new computers as a way to divert revenue--and fat profits--from Sun Microsystems and other manufacturers of high-end Unix servers.

Although the preview release represents a milestone, the company's server strategy is far from seamless. The Datacenter version of Windows 2000, a beefed-up version of 32-bit Windows 2000 for servers, remains noticeably absent. This version, about a month late, was due four months after the Windows 2000 debut.

Two final versions of 64-bit Windows, one for servers and one for workstations, will be released when computer manufacturers begin selling their systems, said Michael Stephenson, lead product manager for the Windows enterprise server division.

The first Itanium processors, which will run at 800 MHz, are expected in the next few months. Computers incorporating the chip may appear toward the end of the year, according to several sources.

Today's version is "about 95 percent feature-complete," Stephenson said. It's similar in technological maturity to a beta version, though Microsoft is avoiding the term "beta" to describe the software unfurled today.

Even when production versions arrive, 64-bit Windows isn't expected to have an immediate effect, said Summit Strategies analyst Dwight Davis. "My gut sense is that it's going to be (for) pilot kinds of programs, and there won't be significant volumes through this year.

"Ultimately, there will be more near-term demand for the 32-bit version of Datacenter than for the 64-bit Windows, which obviously will grow in sync with the 64-bit Intel platform," Davis said.

Gates, speaking at the Windows Professional Developer Conference in Orlando, Fla., also said updated programming tools are available for those writing low-level and high-level software. And Microsoft is making 10 Itanium systems available to programmers who don't have the new computers but who need to test their codes remotely.

The preview edition will be sent to those running the 5,000 Itanium prototypes Intel has sent, said Ron Curry, director of IA-64 marketing for Intel.

Analysts and computer companies agree the biggest market that the 64-bit technology will open is the use of massive databases. That's because 32-bit systems can talk to relatively small amounts of memory--4 gigabytes--whereas 64-bit systems can keep vast amounts of information at hand.

   64-bit vs. 32-bit chip?
A 64-bit chip:

· Allows computers to incorporate vastly more memory than the 4-gigabyte limit imposed by 32-bit chips.

· Provides substantial performance improvement because information can be transferred in 64-bit, rather than 32-bit, parcels.

· Can run software such as complex databases that typically require huge amounts of memory and can manage higher-precision mathematical calculations.

Customers who need to use large, fast databases today often purchase computers from Sun, IBM, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard or SGI, all of which have a 64-bit version of Unix that runs on their own 64-bit chip. In the first three months of this year, $6.6 billion worth of these Unix servers were sold, according to market research firm International Data Corp.

Intel is backing three operating systems for mainstream use on Itanium machines and the successors in the IA-64 family: Windows, Linux and a hybrid of three versions of Unix called Monterey-64, spearheaded by IBM and Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), among others.

Boosting Linux on Itanium has been a novel experience for Intel because the Unix clone is produced by a loosely organized band of programmers. Intel has been helping by offering some programmers sneak peeks at the new architectures, a fact that will enable Linux for the first time to be ready when the new chips arrive, instead of trickling out months later.

The earliest version of Linux for Itanium was released in February. TurboLinux, followed by Red Hat, released a complete prototype distribution of the heart of Linux along with other necessary components. VA Linux Systems has made test servers available for remote debugging. And last month, HP released software that allows people with today's 32-bit systems to test whether their 64-bit Itanium software works.

The initial versions of 64-bit Windows were developed on Compaq's Alpha chips, but the effort has moved completely to Itanium chips, Stephenson said. Compaq abandoned plans for Windows on its 64-bit Alpha chips last year.

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