All Systems Go
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 8 (August 2005)

All Systems Go

A revolution is coming...again. This time it involves 64-bit computing driven by new processors from AMD, IBM, and Intel.

Like most revolutions, this one has been building for some time-64-bit computing has been a mainstay of server and workstation computing for more than a decade. Silicon Graphics introduced its 64-bit processors in 1992, and the DEC Alpha came on the scene that year as well. Then, in 1996, Sun and Hewlett-Packard brought out 64-bit chips: the UltraSparc and the PA-8000, respectively. The Alpha and the PA-8000, in fact, paved the way for the HP and Intel collaboration, which eventually became the Itanium.

Until fairly recently, there has been a clear division between 64-bit workstations and their 32-bit little brothers. But that changed when AMD introduced the AMD64 multi-core processors capable of supporting programs written for 32-bit computers and those written for 64 bit. This makes it possible for customers and applications developers to transition to the new plat-form gradually.

In 2004, Apple introduced its Power Mac G5 computer based on IBM’s PowerPC, which is also capable of running both 64-bit and 32-bit programs. And, after much speculation and anticipation, Intel followed with its own version of the x86-64 processor, which it defines by the instruction set EM64T, or Extended Memory 64 Technology.

But it was Microsoft’s announcement of the 64-bit operating system Windows XP Professional x64 Edition that really set the wheels in motion. Previously, customers who bought computers with the AMD64 processors had to rely on Linux-based operating systems and a few specialized programs. Now, with Apple’s OS X and a Windows OS for x86-64 processors, there are mainstream operating systems for applications developers to develop for.

In terms of 64-bit computing’s relationship to hardware as it pertains to the current-generation of 32-bit and 64-bit processors, the focus is actually on multi-core processors. In fact, the latest processors from Intel, AMD, and, soon, IBM (the 970MP) have two CPU cores on one chip. Apple has announced plans to move to Intel processors, with machines to be introduced in June 2006, but in the immediate future, the company also is expected to roll out new systems based on G5 processors.

The difference is all in a “word”-the name for the processor’s internal storage unit that is used for addressing memory. Today’s processors use a 32-bit “word,” which means they can address 2 to the 32nd bytes of memory, or 4gb, for everything, including operating systems, drivers, applications, etc. Going to 64 bits means the processor uses a 64-bit word, and processors can address 2 to the 64th bytes, or 18 exabytes (4 billion gigabytes), of memory.

As Bill Gates might say, but probably won’t: Surely this should be enough memory for anyone. It’s certainly more than enough for the applications in use today, and probably enough for applications for some time to come.

Using 64-bit processing, a complex image such as this (created in 3ds Max, by Amilton Diesel) can be rendered or animated with exponential speed, and composited into a photographic background.

In addition, all three processors feature faster CPU-to-memory buses. AMD has led the way with its hypertransport bus technology and integrated memory controller, which enables its cores to communicate to memory via a bi-directional, internal, full-duplex 2ghz hypertransport link. Machines based on Intel’s Pentium processors with support for EM64T rely on an 800 mhz front-side bus via a northbridge chip. (Intel has also introduced a Celeron D processor with a 533 mhz front-side bus.) Apple’s G5 has a front-side bus capable of sending data at speeds of up to 1.25 ghz.

Although AMD is currently the clear winner, all these speeds represent significant improvements over earlier generations, and all are dependent on the speed of the memory.

So now, with additional addressable memory and faster connections to memory, more work can be done interactively. Moreover, lower power, 64-bit processors are more efficient than relatively higher powered 32-bit processors, giving users the option of working on cooler and quieter machines.

Instead of working with wireframes or flat-shaded models, 3D modelers can work with fully shaded and even-textured models within their environments. CAD operators can work with the entire model rather than page in and out of memory. Video editors can see their effects in real time. And imaging professionals can work with extremely large images, multiple layers, and multiple filters without bogging down the system.

With every advance in computing, digital content creators have been told that they can spend more time creating and less time waiting for the system or compromising with wireframe, low-res images, or flat-shaded models. This time, however, it’s actually true.

Softimage senior product manager Gareth Morgan notes that today’s game developers may be among the digital content creators who most need 64-bit computing, because they tend to work within the entire game environment rather than on a shot-by-shot basis, as is common in filmmaking. No matter how fast the processor is, if the program has to keep paging out to disc, or huge files need to be broken up into chunks, notes Morgan, “it dramatically complicates the process.”

In addition, multi-core processors mean that the processors can share the load and allow more efficient multi-tasking without crashing the system. Rendering can happen in the background.

George Lucas, a proponent of digital filmmaking, continues to push the technology a little further with each new movie, including the recent Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith.

Users who are already pushing the limits of their 32-bit systems will see some of these capabilities immediately when they move to a system with a 64-bit processor and a complementary operating system. But the real benefit comes when applications are written to take advantage of 64-bit code and new processor platforms.

Tim Lawrence, vice president of operations and a cofounder of Boxx Tech-nologies, is a veteran of 64-bit computing for digital content creation. The company, which designs systems for content creation in film, video, and game development, expects to “see anywhere from a 20 to 30 percent improvement [in performance], all the way up to 6X improvement,” he says. As for multi-processing, Lawrence notes there are some applications with 90 percent or better scaling.

Whether intentional or not, the computer industry has long been preparing for the transition of the desktop from 32-bit computing to 64-bit computing. The software world went through its own revolution in the 1990s, as software was rewritten to take advantage of object-oriented languages, most notably C++. As a result, programs are more modular, reusable, portable, and can be updated and changed more easily.

Indeed, programs have to be rewritten and recompiled in order to take advantage of 64-bit computing, but the ability of the current generation of processors to accommodate both 32-bit code and 64-bit code means that the software itself can be rewritten gradually, with programmers concentrating on the parts of the application that will benefit most from being able to process more information in memory.

This transition is already taking place. Whether they want to talk about it or not, companies are already updating bits and pieces of their programs. For example, several sources have reported that Adobe’s After Effects perks up significantly when running on machines with x64 processors. Also, Adobe’s Photoshop can take advantage of systems with 64-bit processor-compliant operating systems.

In systems with up to 4gb of RAM, Photoshop can access as much as 3 gb of RAM for its image data and use the rest for Photoshop plug-ins. In systems with more than 4 gb (6 gb for Windows and 8 gb for Macs), the RAM above 4 gb is used by the operating system as a cache for the Photoshop scratch disk data.

The power of 64 bit will shine while working with large models. Created using Softimage XSI’s subdivision surfaces, this model consists of 500 million triangles, using up 6.9gb of RAM.

All of this helps improve performance. Otherwise, Photoshop normally accesses the first 2gb of RAM and has to share this with the operating system. (It should be noted that Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2 lets users set a 3 gb switch for more memory access.)

Adobe is working on updates to its video products, including Premiere and After Effects. The company has not made an announcement regarding support for 64-bit processors, but Adobe has been taking advantage of platform advances in its product line with threading for multi-core, and so it’s safe to assume the company has 64-bit support on its road map.

NewTek has enthusiastically embraced 64-bit technology. The company has been in a transitional period as it moves LightWave to Release 8, and so the company made an early commitment to introducing code for 64-bit/multi-core processors. As a result, NewTek’s 64-bit version of LightWave got the star treatment as Microsoft rolled out its Microsoft Windows 64-bit version for Intel and AMD processors at its annual WinHec conference in Seattle.

Another early mover is Avid and its Softimage division. The company demonstrated a 64-bit version of XSI at WinHec with Dell, and has been on the road showing the program to customers ever since. Softimage has elected to introduce two versions of its software: a native 64-bit version and a 32-bit version.

According to Softimage’s Morgan, Avid was able to introduce a fully native 64-bit version of XSI because of its early commitment and early access to hardware from both Intel and AMD. The strategy of separate releases makes sense, says Morgan, because professionals who have bought 64-bit machines and are running Microsoft Professional are not going to be interested in running 32-bit code if they can get 64 bit.

Mental Images’ Mental Ray, the renderer of choice for many digital content creators, has been available for 64-bit Linux for some time. Alias is shipping Mental Ray Standalone 3.4, a 64-bit version that is compatible with Maya 6.5, and the company says a version compatible with Windows XP Professional x64 Edition is on the way.

“This is an important first step in our plans to deliver a new Maya-based product that taps the power of 64-bit hardware,” says Kevin Tureski, director of engineering for Maya, at Alias. Furthermore, Alias claims that customers “at several leading studios” are already evaluating an alpha version of a 64-bit Maya.

Softimage XSI has integrated the Mental Ray renderer and also offers a stand-alone version. XSI’s Mental Ray is also 64-bit compatible, enabling faster rendering.

Another early entrant in the 64-bit sweepstakes is Maxon, which announced Cinema 4D and CineBench in 64 bit soon after Microsoft’s announcement of Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. Maxon says Cinema 4D now can access up to 256gb of RAM in Windows x64. The software also supports multi-core with multi-threading. Maxon notes that its BodyPaint 3D module also gets a boost from the additional memory for textures.

The game industry is likely to be an early beneficiary of the transition to 64-bit computing. At GDC this year, developer Crytek demonstrated a 64-bit version of its Far Cry title.

While Apple was early into the game with 64-bit processors and an operating system, the current version of OS X does not fully support 64-bit applications. Specifically, programs with a graphical user interface must run in 32 bit. Apple says, however, that there is 64-bit support for programs executed from the command line, such as scientific data processing applications, rendering engines, and high load servers.

According to the company, it is first concentrating on its XSan enterprise server software for 64 bit, giving users the ability to share files and volumes up to two petabytes. So, for example, people working with Final Cut Pro HD can simultaneously access high-band-width video streams.

Clearly, 64-bit computing will be a major story at SIGGRAPH this year. Even those companies that choose not to make an announcement surely have a road map for 64 bit, because the transition will be picking up steam over the rest of 2005 and into 2006. For instance, Autodesk’s Media and Entertainment division claims it is proceeding “full throttle.”

In a way, the path to 64 bit simply took a little detour, as the workstation companies of the past were already headed down the 64-bit route when the transition to low-cost x86-based workstations forced customers and ISVs to settle for 32-bit computing to please their economy-minded customers.

Boxx’s Lawrence points out that many of the major DCC programs were already running in 64 bit, including Softimage and Alias products. “For all the wrong reasons,” says Lawrence, “applications had to get crammed down into the Intel boxes with insufficient operating systems.”

For this round of 64-bit computing, software developers and their customers have easier choices to make. It’s not either-or: either a powerful, but high-priced computing platform that’s specialized for particular applications and little else, or a low-priced, less-powerful mainstream platform. This time around, everyone can be happy.

Compositing a greenscreen scene like this one, from the newly released Bewitched film, was done using Autodesk’s Flame. A 64-bit version of Flame will support the new technology.

Traditionally, software developers have been conservative about moving to new platforms. They prefer to see a good base of users on the platform before they make their move. The ability to run both 64-bit and 32-bit programs eliminates this reservation and the change is happening rapidly. Viva La Revolution! It has been a long time coming.

Kathleen Maher is a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor-in-chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at