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64 bits vs. speed: Readers tell what's important

Results of our survey of SunWorld Online readers on their plans
and attitudes towards 64-bit SPARC-based systems

By By Michael McCarthy

December  1995
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At the end of September, HAL Computer Systems announced its pioneering line of SPARC-based 64-bit computer systems, complete with a 64-bit version of the Solaris operating system. In November, Sun Microsystems launched its own line of 64-bit SPARC systems, paired with its 32-bit Solaris.

Amid all the fanfare, we asked ourselves: How important is the 64-bit aspect of these systems to customers? The answer to that question has been clouded by a number of factors. The systems from both vendors are many times faster than the previous generation of 32-bit systems, mainly because the chip designs run at higher clock rates and digest code more efficiently -- indeed, for most 32-bit software, running on a 64-bit system in itself does not speed up operations, and may even slow them down (see "When is 64 bits faster?" Performance Column, Adrian Cockcroft, SunWorld Online, November 1995). Certain operations can be performed more effectively on a 64-bit system, but to see real benefit in performance, you need a 64-bit OS and applications written to take advantage of it. In SPARC, only HAL has the 64-bit OS; there are at this time precious few 64-bit applications.

Complicating things is the fact that for some users, it's not the CPU speed per se that makes 64-bit systems so attractive; it's the enormously larger address space. A chip designer who has to load his design in many small stages today would kill to be able to load an entire 5-million-transistor chip at once. It would also be faster, but mainly because everything can be in memory.

To find out in more detail how the market feels about the new 64-bit systems, we surveyed our readership of Unix professionals in October and November. We asked them how much of their interest in the new systems is interest in raw speed and how much in the extended address space. We also asked whether the huge performance increase over the much-criticized SuperSPARC has come in time to save Sun's and SPARC's reputation and future sales.

Our results are reported below. Between 718 and 953 readers responded, depending on the question. We were not surprised to find that most readers weren't interested in the larger address space enabled by 64-bit systems. But we were a little surprised that just over half of respondents labeled the higher performance of the news systems only "somewhat important." However, almost 40% called the speed improvement "Extremely important." And over 22% said the faster SPARC systems were coming to market in the nick of time to keep them in the SPARC camp. Interestingly, more than half said they are in no real rush for the faster systems or that it's not a risk factor for them.

Aside from those who will simply buy more computers, we wanted to know how many readers would upgrade or switch to or from SPARC. Half the readers responding said they would upgrade old SPARC with new SPARC computers, or even replace non-SPARC computers with SPARC. Even though 80% of readers work in heterogeneous shops, only a fraction plan to replace their SPARC computers with other RISC computers, and an even smaller fraction expect to replace their SPARC computers with Intel ones.

Of those readers who say they will find the 64-bit address space useful in the coming year, the most popular categories for such systems were databases, data warehouses, GIS, and animation.


Here are the full results. Caveat: The survey response was a self-selecting group of SunWorld Online readers; the results, therefore, can only be considered indicative of customer trends, not statistically representative.

(Number of responses: varies from 882 to 953)

1. Do you/does your organization use 64-bit systems now?

   Yes, with 64-bit OS                                     22.7%

   Yes, with 32-bit OS                                      8.1%

   No                                                      63.9%

   Don't know/not sure                                      5.4%
2. How important to you/your organization is the larger address space of a full 64-bit system/OS?
   Very important                                          17.4%

   Somewhat important                                      27.7% 

   Not important now -- maybe in the future                49.4%

   Not important at all                                     5.6%
3. How important to your/your organization is the higher speed of the new systems (aside from 64-bit-ness)?
   Extremely important - we're desperate!                  39.7% 

   Somewhat important                                       50.9% 

   Not very important/Not an issue for us                   9.4% 
4. How important are the faster SPARC systems to keeping you/your organization in the SPARC/Solaris camp in 1996?
   Too little too late - we're gone                         6.7% 

   In the nick of time                                     22.7% 

   Useful, but no real rush                                39.1% 

   Not an issue - we're not in danger of leaving           18.5% 

   Not an issue - we're not in the SPARC/Solaris camp      13.1% 
5. Are you/your organization using non-SPARC Unix systems?
   No, we're pretty much an all-SPARC Unix shop            19.7% 

   Yes, mainly for performance reasons                     23.2% 

   Yes, mainly for software reasons                        18.4% 

   Yes, for experimentation                                 9.4% 

   Yes, for other reasons                                  29.3%
6. Please characterize your organization's use of SPARC computers in the next 12 months:
   Replace old SPARC with new SPARC                        48.1% 

   Replace non-SPARC workstations with SPARC                5.6% 

   Replace SPARC with other RISC workstations               5.8% 

   Replace SPARC with Pentiums                              3.8% 

   I don't know/wrong question                             36.6% 
7. In which categories in the next year will you/your organization be using the addressing capabilities available in 64-bit computing, if any (check all that apply):
   Mechanical drawing                                      15.0% (108)
   Circuit design                                          16.7% (120)
   Circuit simulation                                      18.7% (134)
   Finite element analysis                                 19.1% (137)
   Geographic Information Systems (GIS)                    23.5% (169)
   Relational databases                                    48.9% (351)
   Data warehouses                                         31.8% (228)
   Banking/financial trading                                8.5% ( 61)
   Financial simulation                                     7.7% ( 55)
   Biological research                                     10.0% ( 72)
   Statistics                                              18.5% (133)
   Astronomy                                                6.8% ( 49)
   Weather forecasting                                      7.7% ( 55)
   Geological research                                      9.1% ( 65)
   Signal processing                                       18.7% (134)
   Animation/multimedia                                    20.3% (146)
   Other                                                   32.2% (231)
(Total respondents to question 7: 718) Many readers took the time to write detailed comments explaining their answers. We have collected many of these into a separate file, "Readers comment on 64-bit issues."

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