32-Bit or 64-Bit and Why You Should Care

Unless your head is buried in the sand, it is likely that you have heard talk about 32-bit and/or 64-bit software, processors, or operating systems. Perhaps, even all three. I’m sure that technophiles (e.g., “geeks”) are comfortable with this discussion, but what about “regular” computer users? I am sure many may have an idea what the discussion is all about; however, I suspect that there might be a lack of subject clarity – and more importantly, a lack of knowledge regarding the implications of 64-bit versus 32-bit. My goal is to shed some light on this topic in order to help users better understand this topic.

Simply said, a computer (laptops, desktops, mainframes, and even smartphones) is a complex combination of hardware (a physical component) and software (a program) working together harmoniously to achieve a specific purpose. At a more basic level, we can define a computer as being a processor (the “brains”), an operating system (the “personality”), and application programs (the “apps” we run). This definition is perfect for the purpose of this topic.

The processor is the foundation of the computer as it executes the instructions provided to it by the operating system and/or the application programs. Instructions, as well as addresses, referenced by the processor are represented internally as numerical values having a pre-specified size – commonly referred to as “Word Size.” It is this size that we generally use to classify processors. For instance, many early game consoles (the Atari 2600) and even some pre-PC (Personal Computer) microcomputers (e.g., Z80, Intel 8080) contained only an 8-bit processor. As programs became more complex and we required more information to be processed quicker, chip designers increased the speed and the word size of the processor. The majority of workstations in use today are based on a 64-bit processor, although some workstations having 32-bit processors are still in use.

A processor requires additional hardware (graphics, memory, etc.) and software to be truly useful, with the primary software being an operating system (e.g., MS Windows, Unix, Linux). The processor word size predetermines the maximum word size for the operating system and application programs that can be used. For instance, a 32-bit processor can support a 32-bit operating system (OS) and 32-bit application programs.

As already stated, most common processors found in workstations today are based on a 64-bit architecture. Here’s a fact – 64-bit processors have been around for almost 25 years! They were first introduced the 1990’s and used in gaming consoles (e.g., Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation 2) even before being commonly used in PCs. Unfortunately, software has somewhat lagged behind hardware, as evolving from 32-bit to 64-bit requires extensive changes to the operating system in order to take advantage of the new hardware architecture and increased memory address space. One nice benefit of a 64-bit processor is that it can support either a 32-bit or a 64-bit operating system. Also, a 64-bit operating system can run either 32-bit or 64-bit application programs, which makes the move to a 64-bit environment (processor, OS and apps) less radical as well as one that can be accomplished over time.

So, why should a user care if their workstation is running a 32-bit or a 64-bit environment? The simple answer is: the more bits, the better things are! A 64-bit processor has an extended instruction set (commands that it understands and can execute) compared to a 32-bit processor. This basically means that complex operations can be run more quickly and a larger memory address space can be addressed. However, it takes a 64-bit operating system to take advantage of the technical improvements, added performance, and memory available to the 64-bit processor. That being said, almost all existing 32-bit application programs can run without alteration by a 64-bit operating system because most 32-bit applications use a subset of the 64-bit processor’s instruction set or they can be run in 32-bit “emulation” mode. Unfortunately, a 32-bit application is unable to use the extended memory available on a workstation beyond about 3 GB (gigabyte or 1,073,741,824 bytes) regardless of how much physical memory (RAM) is actually installed and available on the workstation.

Therefore, the ultimate solution is to run 64-bit application programs written specifically for or completely re-architected (a significant undertaking) to run under a 64-bit operating system on a 64-bit processor. Only in this way will you completely benefit from the performance improvements and larger memory space that a 64-bit environment provides. Keep in mind that more memory means you can run more applications concurrently (at the same time and with greater speed), and use much larger files without slowing down complex operations or having to wait for virtual memory swapping to occur. Whereas a 4 GB workstation was the norm perhaps a few years ago, today, 8 GB or larger is becoming the norm and is strongly recommended to properly support a 64-bit workstation environment. Now, you should have a clear understanding of the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit environments and why you require a 64-bit workstation running as many 64-bit versions of your current applications as possible.

In closing, I urge you to download the latest version of erwin® Data Modeler from erwin.com. This new product release is available in two versions. One, as the release number suggests, is a 64-bit version of our market-leading data modeling product. The other is a 32-bit version for workstations not yet fully capable of supporting a 64-bit environment. In either case, you get the same award-winning product and high-end features that have earned industry and customer accolades for more than 25 years. Our new 64-bit version has been used in different vertical market segments (government, telco, banking, retail, insurance, etc.) and early adopters are reporting significant improvement in many core functions (e.g., opening, saving, redrawing and comparing models) – especially when working with extremely large models containing hundreds or even thousands of entities/tables. If you’re not already a erwin Modeling customer, download and try our no-cost “Community Edition” to see and compare the turbocharged power of 64-bit erwin Data Modeler.

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