Can we keep pace with computers?

The roll-out of 64-bit operating systems may necessitate taking stock of what we have.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

I had what some might call a “senior moment” at home the other day. My attention was caught by a small advertisement in the daily paper. The recall notice was so small that I nearly missed it, but there was no doubting the picture. Yes, our aging cell phones were about to suffer the ignominy of being disconnected by the phone company.

Like many people, of course, I have other cell phones — ones with all the latest bells and whistles (and that’s just the ring tones). However, it still came as something of a surprise to realize that a perfectly functional piece of equipment was obsolete after only a few years’ use. But then, after talking to software vendors for the piping feature this month (p. TK), it doesn’t seem so surprising after all.

“Over half of our user base is now using 64-bit machines,” says Stephen Ferguson, technical marketing manager for the computational fluid dynamics (CFD) company CD-adapco, commenting on the accelerating pace of change in computer technology. “When I started 13 years ago,” he notes, “the 20,000-cell [mesh] model was big. Now we’re talking about running the one-billion cell model by the end of the year. We are not there yet, but certainly some companies are currently running models of 200- to 300-million cells.”

Modeling at that level is probably more in the realms of supercomputers, or at least networked clusters of workstations, but to put those technology changes into perspective, Ferguson points out that “with a program like STAR-CD you can do a couple of million cells easily on a laptop, which would be enough for most simple applications.”

There is no doubt that the advent of 64-bit computing is beginning to catch the imagination of engineers of all persuasions. In the mechanical engineering world of CAD packages, for instance, the latest versions of Algor’s finite element analysis (FEA) software feature extended support for 64-bit Microsoft Windows, Linux and Unix operating systems, while SolidWorks has also unveiled 64-bit versions of its CAD software. And, as reported in the piping article, multiphysics specialist Comsol has recently announced support for 64-bit Windows in its latest process simulation tools, which it claims will be able to increase model sizes by orders of magnitude.

Now this is high level computing by any standard, but at lower levels, in the view of Applied Flow Technology’s Tom Glassen, the migration to 64-bit computing may raise some problems. “Our software [the AFT range of pipe-flow-network analysis products] operates at a fairly high level, which means that we enjoy the benefits of backwards compatibility,” he explains. “That should be the same with 64-bit systems, but when you get down to lower level types of operations — device drivers and so on — the whole issue of compatibility becomes more complicated.”

Just how complicated can be gauged by even a cursory look at the information on Microsoft’s Web site for its Windows XP Professional x64 edition. Acknowledging the need for x64-compatible device drivers, Microsoft also offers a few words on migration. And somewhat worrying words they are:

“Whether you are moving to Windows x64 from a 32-bit operating system or simply experimenting with a trial version, it’s important to note that migration requires you to ‘wipe and reload’ your operating system.” In other words, your old system is overwritten and all files, settings, applications and devices will have to be reinstalled — so long as they are 64-bit compatible.

This is probably not that onerous a task for anyone wanting to keep at the cutting edge. However, for someone like myself, who experienced many days of frustration in just trying to upgrade from XP Home to XP Professional a year or so back, it begs the question of why to bother. A question perhaps anticipated by Microsoft, which states on its Web site: “If you are not one of the people who can take immediate advantage of the performance gains of XP Professional x64, you may want to wait to adopt this edition until Windows Vista is released and 64-bit systems are more widely supported.”
But just don’t wait for the 32-bit recall notices in the newspapers.

Mike Spear, editor at large, Hertfordshire, U.K.
MSpear@putman.net

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