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Written by Daniel   
Thursday, 29 July 2004 11:54

Dan peers into his crystal ball, and takes a look at Linux on the desktop along with other 64 bit operating systems. Are AMD's 64bit processors going to herald a new birth in computing, or are things going to drop back into the same rut they're in now?

Currently there's a good deal of interest in 64 bit computing, both in terms of what it can bring to servers as well as to desktops. In terms of the enthusiast, the usual increase in power and speed would generate enough attention on its own, but throw in a few new features such as PCIexpress, and it becomes obvious why these boards and CPUs were destined to gain a real following.

Microsoft's decision to provide a free beta of Windows XP for AMD64 hasn't hurt the transition either. However, a lack of native applications and, more specifically, suitable 64 bit drivers hasn't helped matters at all. Indeed their absence quite often fustrates early adopters to tears. There's nothing more demoralizing than buying a new motherboard with a RAID controller on it, only to find out that there are no 64 bit drivers for the RAID controller! All dressed up and no where to go!

What AMD has accomplished astonishes! Generating a whole range of 64 bit processors from desktop to server. Not only do these processors perform well in 64 bit mode, they're more than capable of holding their own when running legacy code in 32 bit mode. Unlike their competitors, AMD realized early on that no-one wants to throw out all their 32 bit software! They also realized that emulating a 32 bit processor, whilst possible, is very slow, and kills performance. Who wants to run legacy software on a platform that has to spend all it's time emulating a 32 bit CPU?

Start taking a look at the 64 bit desktop - This is where things could get interesting! There are several 64 bit operating systems currently available in various forms, but they really fall into two camps. Those are:

Microsoft's AMD64 native Windows XP, whilst it appears to operate pretty well, can't excape the scarcity of 64 bit drivers and applications.

The other operating systems all fall into the class of "UNIX", chiefly being BSD and Linux. Solaris should still be on target for the end of the year, but isn't currently available and really more server side. Of BSD and Linux, Linux is really the only one that could be considered to be "Desktop Ready". However, if you really want to see the power of UNIX, Apple's OS X clearly demonstrates just how well a 64 bit UNIX can drive the desktop, both in terms of functionality and in looks!

Once you cross the line separating 32 bit computing and 64 bit computing, Windows XP rapidly falls away, but Linux just gets stronger! Linix is quite capable of stepping into the gap left by the absence Microsoft's Driver and software offerings.

Linux ALREADY has prior 64 bit experience on other processors, so moving drivers and applications across to 64 bits isn't too difficult. Hence, Linux ALREADY has 64 bit drivers, as well as 64 bit applications just waiting to be deployed on the desktop or the server.

Microsoft,... left waiting in the wings... MS is reliant on third parties to produce 64 bit drivers. Some of these third parties have gone as far as stating that they have "no plans to release any 64 bit drivers".Meanwhile, Microsoft has already made a public commitment to releasing some of its server software (notably MS SQL server) on AMD's 64 bit platform. That's still in the future though.

Linux has an entire catalog of usable 64 bit software, backed by major vendors such as Sun, IBM and Novell, as well as smaller vendors and the whole Open Source movement. I see the possibility that 64 bit Linux could "break out" and make a grab for a chunk of the desktop market. Each time that Microsoft pushes back the release date of the AMD64 native version of Windows XP, Linux has that extra room to maneuver itself into position. Couple that with the fact that games such as Farcry are promising a 64 bit release, as well as a FREE upgrade to 64 bit code, and we may have seen the birth of the first real incentive for the average computer user to consider the "Other" OS.

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