Windows 7: 32-bit vs. 64-bit
Not that long ago, a 64-bit operating system (OS) had no place in the general market; it was almost exclusively relegated for use in high-end servers and niche markets. Almost no one actually had a 64-bit OS installed on their workstation and even fewer knew what one was. It was the next big thing of the future, but too far out of reach to be useful to many in the present.
Fast forward a few years and you’ll be hard pressed to find a computer system whose hardware will not support the 64-bit architecture. Most any computer you buy today has that capability already built-in – it’s just a matter of installing a 64-bit OS onto it to unlock its full potential. In fact, an increasing number of new, consumer-end systems are being built and shipped with the 64-bit OS already pre-installed. Lest all the credit for this change go to the hardware manufacturers, Microsoft, too, has done its part to further the 64-bit trend. Releasing both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 on the same installation media, they allow the end-user to make the decision as to what version they will install.
What is 64-bit, anyway?
It is hard to define what a 64-bit system is without delving into technical details about addressing, data buses, integers, registers, and the like. For the purposes of this discussion, that kind of detail is simply too much. For our purposes, a 64-bit system is designed in such a way so as to more efficiently (than 32-bit) handle computer instructions, memory addressing, and CPU processing. If you are truly interested in understanding exactly what it is, a good place to start is Wikipedia’s article on the subject.
Without understanding exactly what 64-bit is, there are a few compelling reasons why someone might want to use it:
Generally speaking, 64-bit systems are able to more efficiently handle CPU instruction sets and memory addressing. This means that, under certain circumstances and with certain applications, overall system speed can be increased. In addition, a 64-bit system allows for installed RAM to be greater than 4GB (which is generally considered to be the maximum RAM limit for 32-bit systems). More RAM usually equals faster system performance as the computer doesn’t have to page out running applications to the comparatively slow disk nearly as often. Your mileage may vary, depending on your system configuration and the applications and technologies used.
It’s more secure…
Windows 7 64-bit has, built into the OS, a security feature called “Kernel Patch Protection”. Simply stated, it protects the Windows OS itself, called the Kernel, from unauthorized changes (like what would occur due to a malware infection). Couple that with the other security features (like UAC) of the OS, and Windows 7 is nearly five times more secure than Windows XP (source: CNet).
It’s 32-bit compatible…
A 64-bit system itself represents a major change from a 32-bit system. As such, applications must be specifically written to take advantage of the new architecture. For this reason, many applications have either a 32-bit or 64-bit version available for installation. If you application is 32-bit only, though, Windows 7 includes a feature that allows for the emulation of the 32-bit application on your 64-bit system.
Known as Windows 32-bit on Windows 64-bit (WoW64), it provides a means whereby your application, though written for a 32-bit system only, can interact with the 64-bit system. If you run a program that requires this, you’ll notice a few things about it:
- Registry keys, for 32-bit applications, are located under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Wow6432Node instead of the default 64-bit location HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software.
- Program files, for 32-bit applications, are located under \Program Files (x86) instead of the default 64-bit location \Program Files.
- Windows operating system files, for 32-bit applications, are located under \Windows\SysWOW64 instead of the default 64-bit location \Windows\System32.
It’s supported by Blackbaud…
Although the majority of our applications are currently 32-bit only, they are able to run on 64-bit systems and are fully supported on them. Be sure to check the appropriate system requirements for specifics about your product.
It’s here to stay…
Microsoft, with the release of their latest server OS, Windows Server 2008 R2, has chosen to make it available in the 64-bit architecture only. This means that it is impossible to get a 32-bit version of Server 2008 R2. Clearly, Microsoft is betting that the 64-bit phenomenon is permanent. Computer manufactures and hardware vendors are also hedging their bets with 64-bit. The way of the future appears to rest with 64-bit, at least until they come out with 128-bit systems. As such, it won’t be long before 64-bit is the new 32-bit.