64-Bit Processors--Control at Warp Speed

Software developers get ready to unleash unprecedented power

The next generation of desktop computers is upon us, offering performance an order of magnitude higher than before.

It's not that 64-bit processors are that much faster than 32-bit Pentiums. IBM's new 64-bit PowerPC is only 1.8 GHz, for example. Instead, their high performance stems from the ability to handle huge amounts of data much more efficiently than a 32-bit machine.

Such performance has been limited to mainframes, midrange computers, and RISC workstations until recently, but now 64-bit performance is coming to desktop PCs, at affordable prices. For example, the Sun Blade 150 workstation base configuration includes the 550-MHz, 64-bit UltraSPARC III processor, 128 MB SDRAM, and 40 GB disk. It starts at $1,395 from Sun Microsystems (www.sun.com).

Some software suppliers already are making plans. "We think we can increase our largest system by a factor of 10 with Intel's Itanium processor," says Pat Kennedy, president of OSIsoft (www.osisoft.com), a maker of process historians. "We are thinking of maybe 20 million tags. This is a huge resource increase, and will change the scope of manufacturing intelligence."

"We are aggressively working on our next generation of .Net HMI/SCADA products, which would be used with the 64-bit technology," says Russ Agrusa, president of Iconics (www.iconics.com).

Microsoft says applications running on 64-bit systems will be able to pre-load up to 8 TB (terabytes) of virtual memory compared to 4 GB in 32-bit systems. Although this benefits users working in CAD/CAM, 3D animation, and scientific computing, it also benefits process industry users who do large database computing, modeling, and simulation.

For example, Ibaraki Hitachi, Tokyo, is using an Itanium-based computer to analyze thin-metal casting processes and to model molten metal. Mitsui Chemicals, Purchase, N.Y., got rid of its UNIX systems in favor of an NEC system when it discovered that its need for process simulations was growing 50% per year. Georg Fischer AG, Schaffhausen, Switzerland, uses a Celsius 880 from Fujitsu Siemens for advanced simulations that optimize production processes in casting operations.

With 64 bit systems, Microsoft says you will be able to create much larger and more complex models and perform more intense floating point functions, such as stress and heating tests.

David Hancock, vice president of Automation Control Products (www.acpthinclient.com) says today's entry-level PCs have enough power to run most industrial software packages. But not industrial PCs. "Because industrial PCs generally lag their commercial counterparts by several years, companies such as Wonderware and Intellution cannot make software that requires high-power machines," says Hancock.

"Because the PC is still thought of as a 'personal computer,' there has not been that much interest in creating computers with a great deal of horsepower. The introduction of larger, 64-bit, Windows-based compatible machines is a step toward Windows Mainframes," he says.

Hancock, whose company makes thin client workstations, says 64-bit processing power would be wasted on a single software application, but it would be ideal for running an installation with 50 thin clients located throughout a company.

It may be a waste, but it boggles the mind to think what a process plant could do with a relatively inexpensive machine that has the processing power of a mainframe.

You could bring IT programs to the factory floor. SAP, for example, can run its mySAP supply chain management (SCM) and R/3 ERP software on an Itanium 2 processor. Siemens runs its e-MSC SCM software on Fujitsu Siemens Primergy servers. Having your enterprise software running in the same processor as your HMI/SCADA system would vastly simplify enterprise integration.

Some of this is already in the works. "Iconics plans to offer its complete set of HMI/SCADA and reporting tools for 64-bit processors," says Agrusa. "This will provide substantial enhanced capabilities in display, data collection and trending, and ERP reporting."

Indusoft (www.indusoft.com) suggests you wait to see if the processors will run Windows software. "When Microsoft has a 64-bit operating system, then we will support customers that need that kind of power," says Marcia Roland Gadbois, marketing manager. Otherwise, she sees no reason in trying to run existing software. "What is the point if your software does not take advantage of the 64-bit processor? You would be running a 32-bit application on a 64-bit processor, and not gaining any advantage."

So don't run out and buy a 64-bit machine until you make certain that the architecture and operating systems are compatible with what you want to do. Available processors include:

* Intel Itanium 2: Intel's machine does not use the X86 architecture. This means it may or may not support all your Windows-based applications. Microsoft expects to have Windows XP 64-bit Edition 2002 out soon.

* AMD: Opteron servers and workstations with Hammer technology are due out in April. Hammer is based on X86 technology, so there's a good chance your Windows software will run on it.

* IBM: The latest 64-bit PowerPC will power Macintosh computers.

* Sun Microsystems: UltraSPARC-III is Sun's second generation 64-bit machine. It runs under UNIX and Linux.

Various computer manufacturers are producing desktop PCs based on these processors, including HP, NEC, and Fujitsu.

E-mail Rich at rmerritt@putman.net.


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