Drinking the 64bit Kool-Aid and knowing how it's made

I had a painful but interesting experience the last couple of weeks. To set the stage, I currently run 6 working systems at home all networked and all with various purposes (Linux firewall, Programming box, Graphics rendering workstation, File Server, Games machine, etc.) My programming box (XP Pro) was feeling a little under the weather and there was a sale on at Memory Express for a 64bit Athlon CPU. With the 64bit version of XP released I thought it was a good enough reason to upgrade and try out life in the fast lane. Warning techie-geek speak ahead.

So off I went and purchased an Athlon 3000+ with a Gigabyte GA-K8NS Ultra-939 Pro board. I grabbed an image of XP 64bit off of MSDN and burnt a copy and proceeded to format a new drive for the OS. The install went surprisingly well and all I had to do was install some beta drivers for the sound card. Everything else worked perfectly (including the dual LAN and SATA controllers on the mobo) and the system was flying. My intent was to try out the whole 64bit development thingy so after a lengthy install of Visual Studio 2003 (and 2005) I went ahead and tried some builds of larger systems I had, targetted specifically at x64. Again, everything went well although debugging is hosed in 64bit. It seems the perf tools don't work on x64. The monitor was unable to start the kernal mode driver (VSPerfDrv.sys) and during sampling it would create an error saying "Profiling WOW64 processes is not supported by this version of the profiling tools". I was also hoping to get Virtual PC (32bit) running on XP 64 to see how it performed and if I could do so some silly things like run a 64bit OS (like Windows 2003 Server) in a 64bit hosted VM using the 32bit application (say that 3 times fast).

However the biggest problem with x64 is the drivers. All drivers have to be 64bit (read: have to be, not should be) and while this is true for most of the big companies (ATI, etc.) others only have beta versions out or no support at all (the on-board sound driver was beta). There's a CD that comes with the Gigabyte with some goodies on it (flash BIOS, CPU tuner, etc.) but it wouldn't run at all with a 64bit OS. Why would they package this with a 64bit motherboard? Surely they know that someone would run it on a 64bit OS so wouldn't they have tested it? Basically it came down to having to use a very limited set of hardware until the drivers are available and while the performance was there it really was hardly noticable. I think if I was running Windows 2003 Server 64bit with SQL Server (a notoriaous CPU hog) that probably would have shown better results but for a deskop OS I just don't see the value.

In any case, I wasn't going to continue with the x64 version so flipped back to using my trusty 32bit Pro edition. Windows has this wonderful feature where after enough significant change in the hardware occurs, it wants you to re-activate itself. A change of motherboard did that. Another problem is that with my MSDN subscription, I only have 5 activations available. Like Bill Gates and his wonderful "640K ought to be enough for anybody" statement, I'm sure the MSDN Licencing guys have the same attitude. Nobody will ever need more than 5 activations on an OS. Probably true, when you're running 1 machine. Run 5 and change out your hardware every month because you have nothing better to do with your life and all bets are off. So now I was SOL with no more activations on XP installs left. A few calls, some begging and whining, some digging and I finally resorted to drop back to XP Home since I hadn't used any licenses for it in my mini-Norad setup. Of course there was no way I'm going to develop on an XP Home Edition box so more shuffling, imaging, backups, ghosting, lots of coffee and I finally have a setup that works. Took about 2 weeks in total but we're back and running all 32bit OSes again.

Now to get to the "how it's made part". Rory Blyth had an interesting blog about whether or not viewing the Windows source would actually help anyone? Being a MVP we have (after giving up our first born and the location of the secret Kennedy CIA files) the ability to partipate in the Shared Source Initiative from Microsoft which would give us access to the codebase. However I have a hard time thinking it actually would be beneficial to anyone (except *maybe* someone building embedded systems). One of the big arguments you get from the open source community is that Linux source code is available and Windows isn't and if a company was in trouble by using Linux they could just crack open the code to see what was going on and fix it. Okay, sorry but I really can't buy that. I've been in the Linux codebase and while it's somewhat organized it's far from someone just cracking it open to fix something. It's like anyone who might know something about cars being asked to rebuild an intake manifold (including all the extra gotcha's like getting the timing of the system right, etc.). Yes, I really don't know much about cars but I know more about operating systems and code and I'm sure not going to start messing with kernels (Linux, Windows, or otherwise) to see how something works. It's not like tweaking an algorithm in a business application to see what the number appears on the screen next. I think it's one of those myths. "Oh if only I had the source code I could be so much more productive" or "I wish I knew what was really going on".

Sure, I'd be the first guy to say I'd be curious to see the source code behind SharePoint and with a copy of Reflector you can see how some things are done (just blur your eyes on the obfuscated parts) but it's really just curiousity over anything. Take a peek at the Windows CE source code that Microsoft did release and tell me that you're a better person and it would have saved you all kinds of headaches "if you only knew". If anything I would see it as potentially a learning thing (and given some of the code I have seen it might be a learning platform of how not to write code) but other than curiousity or "how did they do it because it works so why not reuse it" attitude I can't see a need for it. Give me a component that works and has sufficient documentation anyday over ripping into the code to see how things work. I'd rather be a consumer of a serviceable part than knowing how the guy that wires the low-level stuff together did it.

Intellectual property? Any corporation that produces a software product has invested oodles of cash into building it but do you think for one minute if a new "revolutionary" feature showed up in say Tiger (say a Networking Wizard, surprising similar to what Windows does) that people would'nt start looking and lawyering up to see the code that produced this miracle. There was a statement that Microsoft would lose it's competetive edge if it released it's source code. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine that happening with release of source code? Microsofts "competitive edge" is by sheer quantity of installed systems. You get that with 90% of the Desktop market and just because source code is out doesn't mean others would start building better or more competetive systems. It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to build a feature just by looking at how someone else did it. That's how the masters have been creating works of art for thousands of years.

Yes there's been many times I've been asked at work about how something works and the answer was "I don't know, I guess that's how Microsoft did it". Had we been able to see what was under the hood would we have been able to know what's going on? Not likely. It takes some serious skill just to know what's really working in your own application, let alone having hundreds of thousands of lines of source code that you didn't create to wade through. I have yet to see a Linux developer (again, unless they're building embedded systems) do end-to-end debugging into the heart of the lion because something wasn't working quite right. I doubt any Windows application developer would do the same and I don't buy the argument that the world would be a better place if the source code was available. I just don't see enough data points to convince me but your mileage may vary.

Okay, enough of my soapbox. Back to SharePoint development this week.

UPDATE: After waking up I realize that having access to the Windows source has absolutely nothing to do with XP 64bit Edition. I'm not sure why I thought there was any connection there at all. Chalk this up to "insane man blogging" syndrome.


  • Bil, hope you are only using that OS under MSDN license for 'testing and development use' not 'general office use' which would mean you would need to purchase a full license.

  • Yes Steven, these are just sandboxes I setup and tear down as needed. If I find a configuration I like and need to purchase a license I do. Any other OSes are purchased licenses through regular retail sources. Thanks.

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