Every spring, Microsoft holds its annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), a hardware-developer-oriented tradeshow. WinHEC doesn't sound like it would be very exciting, unless the thought of writing device drivers seems compelling to you for some reason. But for the past few years, WinHEC has been surprisingly interesting. Microsoft has used the last two shows to tout its ever-delayed Longhorn OS.
I won't bore you with the Longhorn details except to say that Microsoft did ship a new Longhorn build at the show, but it's aimed at device-driver writers and other hardware-oriented developers and lacks the end-user, security, and management advances we'll see in later builds, including Longhorn Beta 1, which is currently scheduled for an early July release. Instead, I want to discuss some of the enterprise-oriented news I heard at the show. Most of this news involves the x64 platform and 64-bit computing.

Microsoft used WinHEC 2005 to launch its x64 OS products, including the Windows Server 2003 x64 editions (standard, enterprise, and datacenter) and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. These systems closely mirror their 32-bit counterparts but offer access to vast reams of RAM and other system resources, while losing some legacy deadwood, including support for DOS and 16-bit Windows applications.

The success of the x64 platform is assured. Servers, workstations, and PCs based on x64 can run existing 32-bit OSs and applications at full speed or better, giving adopters a nice bit of "future proofing" that has been uncommon recently in the PC industry. The idea is that you can buy an x64-based system this year and run 32-bit OSs and applications, then later move up to a 64-bit OS and, eventually, 64-bit applications.

At a low level, most of the credit for x64 should go to AMD, which pioneered this innovative platform, proving that the designed-from-scratch Itanium model was problematic. Some credit, too, should be given to Microsoft for realizing the potential of x64: After taking tentative steps to support the platform 2 years ago, Microsoft is now fully committed.

Now Intel has jumped onboard the x64 train. Intel has a way of dominating markets, and although the x64 platform represents the first time the company has copied and adopted a competitor's design, it's now clear that Intel is serious about not falling behind again. According to the AMD folks I spoke with at WinHEC, AMD's elegant processor design--which eliminates a key performance bottleneck found in Intel's x64-based chips--will help the company maintain its edge. And that lack of a bottleneck will prove even more beneficial to AMD and its customers when dual-core processors become widely available later this year. Intel's chips, I'm told, will be hobbled by their design and need to be rebuilt at a later date.

HP showed off mainstream business PCs that are based on the x64 platform. The HP dx5150 maintains the same small form factor and micro-tower design as previous 5000 series machines but can be outfitted with an AMD Athlon 64 processor. The system also includes integrated video with an option to add PCI Express-based video, for an interesting dual-display system that's driven by two discrete graphics chips. They support 4GB of RAM today but will support 8GB of RAM when 2GB DIMMs are made available. The mind boggles.

Aside from the memory headroom, why buy an x64 PC today? HP tells me that because the price is the same as a 32-bit Intel-based system, the x64 PCs represent a bargain when you consider the life of the system. And because HP fully supports these systems, the company is working to ensure that a full set of compatible drivers is available and regularly updated, alleviating a major concern with today's 64-bit systems.

Because Dell is an Intel customer, the company was showing off systems that match Intel's road map, which means delivering server-oriented chips before desktop processors. Dell showed me a powerful and quiet Dell Precision 670 workstation that features a 3.6GHz, 64-bit Xeon processor, support for up to 16GB of RAM, and massive amounts of storage. Like most Dell systems, the interior of the Precision 670 is a study in neatness and easy access to components, a trait that the company continues to excel at.

Dell tells me that the workstation market has been champing at the bit for XP Pro x64, and the company will take advantage of that system's ability to address far more memory than 32-bit OSs. The company noted that 18 different ISVs are prepping 34 different 64-bit applications specifically designed for XP Pro x64 and that these applications would target vertical markets such as digital content creation, CAD, software development, and other related industries. I also received an impressive demo of Avid Technology's SOFTIMAGE/XSI, a software package that virtually every Hollywood movie uses to create photo-realistic digital animations. George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) made extensive use of SOFTIMAGE/XSI during the production of "Star Wars Episode III, The Revenge of the Sith."

Back on the Microsoft side, various representatives of the software giant reiterated their belief that x64 will become the mainstream server platform this year, whereas the client migration will be finished by the end of 2007. Microsoft is supporting x64 across the board in its server products. The company will support all its server products on x64 by the end of 2005 (meaning that most will still be 32-bit only but will be certified to work on x64 systems). It will then port all of its server products to native x64 versions by the end of 2006. Customer demand will determine the mix of 32-bit and 64-bit products that Microsoft releases after that, but over time, the company will phase out the 32-bit server products.

Microsoft's internal use of x64 is impressive as well. The company recently moved all Microsoft.com servers to the x64 platform without needing to change a line of Active Server Pages (ASP) or ASP.NET code to make it work. Additionally, the company reaped immediate performance and reliability gains. At MSN, Microsoft migrated its MSN Messenger server farm to x64, reducing the number of servers it needed from 250 servers to fewer than 30, an obvious consolidation win. Those systems handle more than 70 million concurrent connections from around the world at all times.

Active Directory (AD) will see huge gains with x64 as well: Because x64-based servers can support massive amounts of RAM, you can host the entire AD database in memory, speeding client access dramatically and providing further consolidation scenarios because you maintain the same level of performance with less hardware.

Unless you need the absolute highest levels of scalability and performance--areas that the Itanium will continue to dominate for a few years at least--the x64 platform is the obvious choice when it's time to upgrade. As Microsoft told me, x64 is the heir to 32-bit Windows. And it's only a matter of time before all businesses move to x64. Whether that happens for you now or later depends on your schedule. But make no mistake: The x64 era has begun.