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Sun tests 64-bit Solaris

The firm is beta-testing the 64-bit version of its operating system, but competitors and analysts say it is late entering the game.

A full-blown 64-bit version of Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system and associated development tools has entered beta testing, with final shipment of the upgrade due by the fall, according to the company.

News of the beta program--encompassing a strong developer push so that 64-bit applications will exist once the Solaris software ships--continues Sun's effort to slowly transition its customer base to what has become the new standard for high-end computing. Current versions of Solaris run in 32-bit mode, a plateau that may be fine for most operations but could inhibit high-end computing tasks.

The company is among several firms promising to deliver 64-bit versions of operating system software, with competitors such as Hewlett-Packard chastising Sun for its late arrival.

Being able to crunch larger chunks of data, a key benefit of 64-bit software, could further differentiate Sun from the ever-growing market Microsoft has found for its Windows NT Workstation and Server software. A 64-bit version of NT is not due out until after work on the next mammoth upgrade--Windows NT 5.0--is complete, expected in the spring of next year.

A common 64-bit code base for Solaris will be used for parallel Intel and Sparc-based systems efforts targeting staunch Unix customers as well as users leery of running NT in critical settings on Intel hardware. The beta program will consist of 1,200 sites, with an update to the beta software expected by summer.

Why are 64-bit systems important? The technology allows users and systems to handle larger chunks of data at one time, speeding access to complex database information, for example.

In some customer settings, applications are hitting a 32-bit wall and may only need a few more bits to access all the information they need to, according to Sun executives.

"I think Sun is correct in gauging the need for 64 bits as somewhat limited but recognizing that those that need it really need it," said Jean Bozman, software analyst with International Data Corporation. "On the other hand, I'm somewhat surprised that Sun is just getting to this now."

Sun has maintained that its road map to 64 bits will not be complete until this fall because the company wanted to make sure the operating system update would be compatible with existing 32-bit applications and systems.

Other companies have followed a similar path, but some--such as Digital Equipment--chose a blunt approach, moving to 64 bits in one fell swoop. "It proved to be too drastic a change to make for a smooth migration," noted Bozman. "Other Unix vendors took note of that."

The latest developments on the technical side come as the Unix community continues to evolve. Various players in Unix software have either chosen to rely on a third party to develop a 64-bit implementation of an operating system for them or are doing it themselves, leading to a rare period of consolidation for what has sometimes been a fractured segment.

Sun has garnered third-party support from Siemens-Nixdorf, NCR, and Fujitsu. Those systems firms will sell 64-bit versions of Solaris rather than continuing development on their own Unix "flavors." Certain high-end technologies from these firms will seep into Solaris development, according to terms of the licensing deals.