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In computing, a 64-bit component is one in which data are processed or stored in 64-bit units (words). The term often refers to a computer's CPU, describing the size of the registers used to hold memory addresses and other data, as well as the ALU that operates on those registers.

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As of 2004, 64-bit CPUs are common in servers, and have recently been introduced to the (previously 32-bit) mainstream personal computer arena in the form of the AMD64, EM64T, and PowerPC 970 (or "G5") processor architectures.

Though a CPU may be 64-bit internally, its external data bus or address bus may have a different size, either larger or smaller, and the term is often used to describe the size of these buses as well. For instance, many current machines with 32-bit processors use 64-bit buses, and may occasionally be referred to as "64-bit" for this reason.

The term may also refer to the size of an instruction in the computer's instruction set or to any other item of data. Without further qualification, however, a computer architecture described as "64-bit" generally has integer registers that are 64 bits wide and thus directly supports dealing both internally and externally with 64-bit "chunks" of data.

Architectural implications

Registers in a processor are generally divided into three groups: integer, floating point, and other. In all common general purpose processors, only the integer registers are capable of storing pointer values (that is, an address of some data in memory). The non-integer registers cannot be used to store pointers for the purpose of reading or writing to memory, and therefore cannot be used to bypass any memory restrictions imposed by the size of the integer registers.

Nearly all common general purpose processors (with the notable exception of the ARM and most 32-bit MIPS implementations) have integrated floating point hardware, which may or may not use 64 bit registers to hold data for processing. For example, the AMD64 architecture defines a SSE unit which includes 16 128-bit wide registers, and the traditional x87 floating point unit defines 8 64-bit registers in a stack configuration. By contrast, the 64-bit Alpha family of processors defines 32 64-bit wide floating point registers in addition to its 32 64-bit wide integer registers.

Memory Limitations

Most CPUs are designed so that the contents of a single integer register can store the address (location) of any datum in the computer's virtual memory. Therefore, the total number of addresses in the virtual memory the total amount of data the computer can keep in its working area is determined by the width of these registers. Beginning in the 1960s with the IBM System 360, then (amongst many others) the DEC VAX minicomputer in the 1970s, and then with the Intel 80386 in the mid-1980s, a de facto consensus developed that 32 bits was a convenient register size. A 32-bit register meant that 232 addresses, or 4 gigabytes of RAM memory, could be referenced.

At the time these architectures were devised, 4 gigabytes of memory was so far beyond the typical quantities available in installations that this was considered to be enough "headroom" for addressing. 4-gigabyte addresses were considered an appropriate size to work with for another important reason: 4 billion integers are enough to assign unique references to most physically countable things in applications like databases.

However, with the march of time and the continual reductions in the cost of memory (see Moore's Law), by the early 1990s installations with quantities of RAM approaching 4 gigabytes began to appear, and the use of virtual memory spaces greater than the four gigabyte limit became desirable for handling certain types of problems. In response, a number of companies began releasing new families of chips with 64-bit architectures, initially for supercomputers and high-end server machines. 64-bit computing has gradually drifted down to the personal computer desktop, with Apple Computer's PowerMac desktop line as of 2003 and its iMac home computer line (as of 2004) both using 64-bit processors (Apple calls it the G5 chip), and AMD's "AMD64" architecture (and Intel's "EM64T") becoming common in high-end PCs.

32 vs 64 bit

A change from a 32-bit to a 64-bit architecture is a fundamental alteration, as operating systems must be modified to take advantage of the new architecture. Other software must also be ported to use the new capabilities; older software is usually supported through either a hardware compatibility mode (in which the new processors support an older 32-bit instruction set as well as the new modes), or through software emulation.

While 64-bit architectures indisputably make working with huge data sets in applications such as digital video, scientific computing, and large databases easier, there has been considerable debate as to whether they or their 32-bit compatibility modes will be faster than comparably-priced 32-bit systems for other tasks.

Theoretically, some programs could well be faster in 32-bit mode. Instructions for 64-bit computing take up more storage space than the earlier 32-bit ones, so it is possible that some 32-bit programs will fit into the CPU's high-speed cache while equivalent 64-bit programs will not. However, in applications like scientific computing, the data being processed often fits naturally in 64-bit chunks, and will be faster on a 64-bit architecture because the CPU will be designed to process such information directly rather than requiring the program to perform multiple steps. Such assessments are complicated by the fact that in the process of designing the new 64-bit architectures, the instruction set designers have also taken the opportunity to make other changes that address some of the deficiencies in older instruction sets by adding new performance-enhancing facilities (such as the extra registers in the AMD64 design).

Pros and cons

A common misconception is that 64-bit architectures are no better than 32-bit architectures unless the computer has more than 4 GB of memory. This is not entirely true.

Some operating systems reserve portions of each process' address space for OS use, effectively reducing the total address space available for mapping memory for user programs. For instance, Windows XP DLLs and userland OS components are mapped into each process' address space, leaving only 2 or 3 GB (depending on the settings) address space available under Windows XP, even if the computer has 4 GB of RAM. This restriction is not present in 64-bit Windows.

Many C programs use signed values for buffer sizes, which wrap around if they exceed 2 GB in size.

Memory mapping of files is becoming more dangerous with 32-bit architectures, especially with the introduction of relatively cheap recordable DVD technology. A 4 GB file is no longer uncommon, and such large files cannot be memory mapped easily to 32-bit architectures. This is an issue, as memory mapping remains one of the most efficient disk-to-memory methods, when properly implemented by the OS.

The main disadvantage of 64-bit architectures is that relative to 32-bit architectures the same data (due to swollen pointers and possibly other types) occupies slightly more space in memory. This increases the memory requirements of a given process, and can have implications for efficient processor cache utilisation. Maintaining a partial 32-bit datamodel is one way to handle this, and is in general reasonably effective.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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