The great 32-bit turnoff

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Don't say you weren't warned. Your 32-bit Windows applications are going the way of analog television: Unless they're upgraded, in the next few years they'll go dark.

As scares go, this one isn't quite on the same level as Y2k, but one thing is certain: Windows Server 2008 will be the last version to support 32-bit applications. That doesn't mean vendors have to port them over to native 64-bit applications. At a minimum, however, they do need to modify existing 32-bit applications so that they can still function in a 64-bit operating environment.

But so far, many application software vendors have been dragging their feet in getting the Microsoft 64-bit seal of approval, and that has some users worried.

Part of the reason for all the procrastinating is that until now Microsoft hasn't sent a clear signal to vendors, says John Enck, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "Up until Server 2008, there wasn't any program to incent the [software developers] to port their programs. Our clients are very frustrated," he says. Now as part of the WS '08 certification program, all vendors must state whether their applications will run properly in a 64-bit Windows environment.

For most organizations, it's not the broadly used business applications such as SQL Server that are the problem: It's the thousands of niche commercial products and internally developed programs that have so far failed to make the transition.

Bob Yale, information technology principal in the technology operations group at The Vanguard Group Inc., says most of the mainstream applications Vanguard uses are up to snuff. It's the "one-off," niche applications that haven't made the transition. Yale can rewrite internal applications, but the commercial software is out of his control. "We are hoping this declaration by Microsoft starts to drive the vendor community toward [a 64-bit architecture]," he says.

Axium Healthcare Pharmacy Inc. forsees problems with both internally developed code and some of the commercial vertical market applications it uses. "Our code base is Visual Basic 6. That's going to be an issue," says director of IT Norbert Cointepoix. The specialty pharmacy also uses an "ancient" third-party pharmacy application that hasn't kept up with the times.

Although the software is a niche product, the vendor is a "pretty big company" that has stuck with the same code base and flat-file database structure since the 1980s. Over the years, it has merely tacked on a GUI to modernize the front end. It is, he says, "very antiquated."

While migrating to newer software would be expensive and disruptive, Cointepoix and others with similar products may soon have no other choice.

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