Deploying Windows 7 - Part 9: Deploying 32-bit vs. 64-bit Windows

by [Published on 1 Oct. 2009 / Last Updated on 1 Oct. 2009]

This series of articles on deploying Windows 7 continues with examining the pros and cons of deploying 32-bit vs. 64-bit Windows using MDT 2010.

If you would like to read previous articles in this series, please go to:

You can find more information about automating LTI deployment in the Windows 7 Resource Kit from Microsoft Press. I'm the lead author for this Resource Kit and I also maintain the Unofficial Support Site for the Windows 7 Resource Kit where you will find the latest updates and other useful information.

In the previous articles of this series we have looked at what is new in MDT 2010 and how to automate basic deployments of Windows 7 Enterprise edition using MDT 2010. In this article we are going to pause for a moment and consider the pros and cons of deploying 32-bit vs. 64-bit Windows.  

Is Now The Time To Deploy 64-bit Windows?

The Windows client operating system has had a 64-bit version available since Windows XP Professional x64 Edition was released in 2004. Unfortunately third-party driver support for this version of Windows was limited at the time, which meant that users who installed it were often unable to use their printers, scanners, and other peripherals. When Windows Vista became available in early 2007, it boasted much improved third-party 64-bit driver support, and some organizations who decided to deploy Vista chose to deploy an x64 edition instead of an x86 version to take advantage of the ability of 64-bit Windows to run more applications at the same time and to use more than the 3 GB of RAM that 32-bit Windows is capable of using. Unfortunately some organizations which chose this path without proper planning soon discovered that older 64-bit AMD and Intel systems on which Vista x64 was installed were only able to use 3 GB of RAM even when 4 GB or more RAM was installed in them. In other words, organizations sometimes discovered that the promised performance benefits of using 64-bit Windows were not achieved.

So where does this leave us today? Windows 7 has been released to manufacturing (RTM) and is already available for volume-licensed customers. If your organization is currently running Windows XP on your client computers and you are eager to move forward with migrating your client computers to Windows 7, should you take the plunge and deploy only 64-bit Windows 7 if the chipsets in all your systems support it? My answer is a resounding YES and I suggest that there is virtually no reason any longer to prefer 32-bit over 64-bit Windows, provided you are going to deploy Windows 7 on x64 systems that are only a year or two old.

Here is my short list of reasons why you should choose a 64-bit Windows 7 edition over its corresponding 32-bit edition:

  • If you want to get the best performance possible, there are three things you can do: use a faster processor, add more RAM, or replace your drive with a Solid State Disk (SSD) drive. Processors are often tied to motherboards, so replacing them is not trivial. RAM is cheap now, and boosting your system's memory to 4, 8 or even 16 GB will not empty your bank account. Good SSDs are still very expensive however—much more so than RAM. So if you want to boost your performance while keeping your budget under your control, adding lots of RAM is the way to go, and 64-bit Window 7 Ultimate edition can use up to 192 GB of RAM if your system's motherboard can hold that much. So if you want the best performance at the best price, go with 64-bit Windows over 32-bit provided your system hardware supports addressing more than 4 GB of RAM. And which systems support this today? Almost anything you can buy. For example, the Intel x58 workstation chipset includes 6 DRAM sockets, and 12 6 x 2 GB = 12 GB of DDR3 DRAM costs less than $200. Even quad-core I7 processors are only about $250.
  • The 64-bit version of Windows 7 only occupies a couple of more GB on your hard drive than the 32-bit version. If you are really constrained for hard drive space (i.e. hard drive 32 GB or less) then you might prefer installing 32-bit Windows over 64-bit. But if your system has such a small hard drive, you're better off buying a large one. Even large SSDs are beginning to rapidly fall in price these days.
  • If your users rely on some mission-critical 16-bit applications then you might consider installing the 32-bit version of Windows 7 instead of the 64-bit version. That's because 64-bit Windows 7 doesn't support running 16-bit applications. However, you can get around this issue by using Windows Virtual PC and the Windows XP Mode environment, which lets users run a virtual instance of a 32-bit Windows XP operating system on their Windows 7 computers so that users can run older applications that are incompatible with Windows 7 (or with 64-bit Windows 7) while still being able to take advantage of the many enhancements and new features of Windows 7. There's one catch however: the user's system must support hardware virtualization (Intel VT or AMD-V) in order to run Windows Virtual PC and the Windows XP Mode environment, and usually only higher-end client systems less than about a year old include support for hardware virtualization. And if you need a more centralized and manageable way of mitigating application compatibility issues on desktop computers using virtualization, be sure to check out Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), a core component of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) for Software Assurance (SA). MED-V uses Microsoft Virtual PC to create, deliver and manage corporate Virtual PC images on any Windows-based desktop. On the other hand, now may be the time when you should finally get serious about recoding your old mission-critical 16-bit applications as 64-bit applications.
  • Virtually all peripherals sold in the last couple of years have 64-bit drivers available for them. Most peripherals these days use USB as their interface with the computer. Windows Virtual PC and the Windows XP Mode environment supports USB. The result? No problem!
  • If your organization is really constrained in their budget—which may be typical during a recession or downturn like the one much of the world is currently experiencing—then you may be able to make a case for keeping your older computer systems and migrating them to 32-bit Windows 7. On the other hand, when you make your case you should consider the cost of lost productivity caused by the poor performance of these older systems. And if your business is that fiscally constrained, maybe you should just stay with Windows XP or Windows 2000 or Windows 98 or whatever you're currently using.
  • Finally, if you are a developer and your dev system uses 32-bit Windows, you can only do 32-bit development on your system. If your dev system is 64-bit, you can do both 32- and 64-bit development. I have heard of some issues when debugging applications using Visual Studio on 64-bit Windows that were more complicated and required workarounds compared with running Visual Studio on 32-bit Windows, but I'm not a developer and I can't understand these issues in any depth. If you want to learn more, read Visual Studio: Why is there no 64 bit version? (yet).

Considerations when using MDT 2010 with 64-bit Windows 7

MDT 2010 comes in two versions: x64 and x86. Both versions of MDT 2010 support deploying both x86 and x64 Windows operating systems. And both versions of MDT 2010 require version 2.0 of the Windows AIK.

Windows AIK 2.0 however also comes in both x86 and x64 versions. And as the Deployment Guys have pointed out, if you are running the 32-bit version of Windows AIK 2.0 on a 32-bit Windows 7 technician computer, you can create catalogs and answer files for both x64 and x86 custom images. On the other hand, if you are running 64-bit version of Windows AIK 2.0 on a 64-bit Windows 7 computer, you cannot create catalogs or answer files for x86 custom images. And you can not run the 64-bit version of Windows AIK 2.0 on a 32-bit Windows 7 computer.

On the other hand, if you are only deploying 64-bit Windows 7, you can install MDT 2010 x64 and Windows AIK 2.0 x64 on a technician computer running Windows 7 x64 and not worry about any of this!

Conclusion and Additional Resources

Clearly in most cases the pros of migrating your client computers to 64-bit Windows 7 outweigh the cons in most cases. Because of this, the remaining articles in this Deploying Windows 7 series will focus on deploying Windows 7 Enterprise x64 using MDT 2010. Finally, here are a few resources you should check out concerning 64-bit Windows:

If you would like to read previous articles in this series, please go to:

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