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Migrating to Windows Vista: Should you go with 64-bit?

Brien M. Posey
A lot of companies have been understandably hesitant to upgrade to Windows Vista. After all, Vista requires far beefier hardware than Windows XP, and it has been plagued by compatibility problems with various applications since the beginning.

However, now that Windows Vista has been out for well over a year, these problems aren't nearly as severe as they used to be. Current hardware has no trouble running Vista, and most application vendors have released either Windows Vista patches or entirely new versions of their wares. That being the case, it may be time to seriously consider taking the plunge and upgrading to Windows Vista. Before you do, though, there is one very serious issue to consider: Should you go with the 32-bit version or the 64-bit version of Vista?

Pretty much every computer that's manufactured today can run either version, so the underlying hardware isn't really a consideration unless you are installing Vista onto an older machine. Nevertheless, there are both advantages and disadvantages to running the 64-bit version.

The advantages

Probably the biggest advantage to running the 64-bit version of Windows Vista is that it's far more secure than the 32-bit version. The 64-bit version contains a security feature called Address Space Layout Randomizer. This feature causes a random offset to be applied when system files are loaded. This means that unlike the 32-bit version of Vista, system files are rarely located in the same memory location twice in a row. This randomization foils many of the exploits that are commonly used against Windows today.

Probably the biggest advantage to running the 64-bit version of Windows Vista is that it's far more secure than the 32-bit version.
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Another security feature found only in the 64-bit version is something called Data Execution Prevention, which keeps executable code from running in certain areas of the system's memory. The 32-bit edition of Vista includes a less sophisticated version of this feature that is implemented through software, but the 64-bit version enforces Data Execution Prevention at the hardware level.

When Microsoft first introduced Windows Vista, it included another security feature in the 64-bit version called PatchGuard. The idea behind PatchGuard is to keep third-party software from patching the Vista kernel. Various software vendors protested this feature and, as of Service Pack 1, Microsoft now allows the Vista kernel to be patched. Therefore, PatchGuard shouldn't even be taken into account when choosing whether or not you should use the 64-bit version of Vista.

Security isn't the only advantage to using the 64-bit version of Vista. In some cases, performance is an advantage as well. Generally speaking, it has been my experience that 32-bit applications usually do not perform any better on a 64-bit operating system than they do on a 32-bit OS. If you are currently using a high demand application, and there is a 64-bit version available, then the 64-bit version will almost always perform better than the 32-bit version.

I have found this to be particularly true of Microsoft's Virtual PC 2007. Microsoft offers both a 32-bit version and a 64-bit version (although both versions are limited to hosting 32-bit guest operating systems). I have never done any hard-core benchmarking between the two versions, but when I am running multiple guest operating systems simultaneously, the 64-bit version does seem to perform better.

The disadvantages

As much as I would love to tell you to run right out and buy as many licenses for 64-bit Vista as you need, here are some disadvantages to give you pause. I mentioned before that Windows Vista has been plagued by compatibility problems since the beginning. These compatibility problems are far more common in the 64-bit version than they are in the 32-bit version.

More on 64-bit computing 
with Windows

Vista and hardware drivers: Beware the 64-bit barrier 

Disabling requirement for signed drivers in 64-bit Windows Vista 

How virtualization can simplify your transition to 64-bit computing

Can 32-bit and 64-bit domain controllers co-exist?

For example, I use an application called Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate most of the material that I write. This application runs really well on the 32-bit version of Vista, but you can't even install it on the 64-bit edition. Since it's an important application that I use every single day, I am forced to run the 32-bit version of Vista on my primary desktop.

Another reason why compatibility can be a problem is that 64-bit Vista can only use 64-bit drivers. That is less of a problem than it used to be, but some manufacturers are still only offering 32-bit drivers.

To give you an example, I bought a new laptop about a month ago. Because of the type of work I do, I needed to be able to run multiple virtual server instances at the same time. For this reason, I got something really high end and installed 64-bit Vista as my primary operating system. For the most part I didn't have any problems getting drivers. However, the laptop has an integrated webcam, and for some reason the manufacturer does not offer a 64-bit driver for it. Granted, in most cases a webcam driver probably isn't going to make or break your decision to upgrade to a 64-bit operating system. I just wanted to share this story as a way of pointing out that even today manufacturers are still selling brand new hardware for which 64-bit drivers are not being offered.

The verdict

Unfortunately, I really can't tell you whether you should use the 64-bit or the 32-bit version of Windows Vista. You will have to base that decision on whether your hardware and your applications will work with the 64-bit edition. I will tell you that in my own organization, I use a mixture of 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems. Using both versions requires more administrative work than just running a single version but, for me, the benefits outweigh the extra work.

I have also heard whisperings throughout the IT community that Microsoft intended Windows Vista to be a transitional operating system. Rumor has it that this is going to be the last version of Windows for which Microsoft will offer a 32-bit version. If that rumor is true, then you might be able to save yourself some headaches down the road by starting to convert everything to 64-bit now. That isn't necessarily a recommendation; it's just something to think about.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional Award four times for his work with Windows Server, IIS and Exchange Server. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities, and was once a network administrator for Fort Knox. You can visit his personal Web site at www.brienposey.com.


This was first published in May 2008

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