It has the makings of a major controversy, but I'm curious what people will think about this decision after it has settled in a bit. At Microsoft IT Forum 2005 earlier this month in Barcelona, Spain, Microsoft executives revealed the company's roadmap for moving its server products to 64-bit platforms. It should come as no surprise that Microsoft is backing the x86-compatible x64 platform. What is surprising, however, is the sudden quickness with which Microsoft is moving away from 32-bit server software.

Less than a year ago, it was big news that Microsoft would ship feature-parity versions of Windows Server 2003 for x64 systems. Now, however, Microsoft is transitioning fully to the x64 platform, and many of its upcoming server products will be available only in x64 versions. The most notable of these products is Microsoft Exchange Server 12, due in late 2006. Microsoft says it will offer Exchange 12 only for x64 systems; no 32-bit version will be made available.

This news was met with skepticism and even shock by some Microsoft customers. According to Microsoft, however, customers are already rolling out x64 hardware in volume today, even though most of them are still using 32-bit versions of Windows 2003. By 2006, the company told me, 32-bit x86 server production will cease almost entirely.

But there are more pragmatic reasons to require x64 for Exchange 12, Microsoft says. In internal tests of Exchange 12, the company found that I/O operations are 75 percent faster on the x64 version of Exchange 12 using identical hardware. This means that x64 Exchange 12 systems can support four times the users as equivalent 32-bit versions can or use one-quarter the disk space. And thanks to x64's native scalability improvements, organizations will be able to consolidate servers, supporting more users per server and, potentially, saving money.

But I think customers have a legitimate gripe about Microsoft's upgrade and migration policies for Exchange. Every Exchange version, it seems, requires a specific Windows Server version, sending upgrade costs and complexity skyrocketing. The Exchange 12 migration, it seems, might be the most difficult yet.

Exchange 12 isn't the only Microsoft server product moving to the x64 platform. Although the initial version of Longhorn Server, currently due in 2007, will come in both x86 (32-bit) and x64 versions, Longhorn Server Release 2 (R2), due in 2007, will be available in x64 versions only. Microsoft was quick to defend this decision, noting that it wouldn't simply stop supporting 32-bit Windows Server versions after Longhorn Server ships. "Remember that we will be supporting the 32-bit versions of Longhorn Server until 2012, and extended support will be available through 2017," Sam Distasio, Microsoft group product manager, told me recently. "Customers will have the option to continue with 32-bit." Service packs for both 32-bit and x64 versions of Windows 2003 will appear as well, he said.

Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, due in early 2006, will also be made available only in an x64 version. Other products, such as Microsoft SQL Server 2005 and Virtual Server 2005, will continue in 32-bit and x64 versions at least through next year. By the time Longhorn Server ships, however, these and other Microsoft server products will likely begin moving solely to x64 (and, in some cases, Itanium) versions.

Speaking of Itanium, Microsoft will continue to support Visual Studio 2005, the Microsoft .NET Framework, SQL Server 2005, and Windows 2003 Enterprise and Datacenter editions on the Itanium platform. However, as I've noted in the past, one gets the feeling Microsoft can't wait for x64 to meet or exceed Itanium's scalability prowess so it can simply move to a single, unified platform. Until then, Microsoft will offer limited support for Itanium only, aimed at high-end workloads.

So, I'm curious. Is x64 hardware really as widespread in the enterprise market as Microsoft believes it is? And do you think that the company is moving to x64 a bit too quickly? Drop me a line and tell me what you think.

With R2 Looming, Windows Server Comes on Strong
Microsoft's follow-on to Windows 2003, dubbed Windows 2003 R2, will ship sometime in December, according to Microsoft. But the company posted its strongest quarter ever in Windows Server history in third quarter 2005, as Windows Server-based servers dominated their market, according to market researchers at IDC. Linux growth, meanwhile, slowed, giving Windows Server its strongest-ever quarter for revenues. With the overall server market growing 8.1 percent in the quarter, Windows 2003 accounted for $4.6 billion, edging out the $3.9 billion generated by UNIX-based servers. This is the first time Windows Server revenue bettered that of UNIX.

Buoying Microsoft's contention that x64-based servers are making inroads, sales of those servers grew more than 700 percent, while sales of 32-bit servers fell 61 percent year over year. x64 servers accounted for almost 70 percent of all server spending in the quarter, and x64 servers are now the single largest-selling platform in the server market. Although no one is yet estimating how many of those systems run native x64 OSs, my guess is that most of them still use 32-bit server OSs.