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Tuesday, August 26, 2008, 05:35 am PT (08:35 am ET)

Road to Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: 64-Bits

The 64-bit GUI in Leopard

In Leopard, Apple expanded 64-bit support further, adding 64-bit support in the higher levels of Carbon and Cocoa. Apple delivered its own Xcode app in Leopard with support for both PowerPC and Intel in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, all within the same application bundle. The entire OS is now a Universal Binary as well; it automatically runs on whatever hardware it is installed on. Incidentally, one of the biggest issues in getting Mac OS X to run on generic PC hardware is the need to turn off PAE in the kernel for older CPUs that don't support it.

While all of Cocoa is now 64-bit, Apple chose not to deliver full 64-bit support in Carbon's user interface APIs (including legacy parts of QuickTime), forcing developers to migrate their apps to use the modern equivalents in Cocoa in order to deliver full 64-bit applications with a user interface. Carbon can still be used to build faceless 64-bit background apps that interact with a 64-bit Cocoa front end, similar to how Tiger supported 64-bit background apps. Earlier, Apple had added transitional support for mixing Cocoa into Carbon apps to make this move easier.

Apple's decision to withhold the development of 64-bit Carbon caused Adobe to announce this spring that its upcoming Creative Suite 4 would only be delivered as a 64-bit app on Windows. Because CS4's legacy code is based on Carbon, Adobe said it wouldn't be able to deliver a 64-bit version of its Mac apps until at least CS5, because it will require porting the interface code of Photoshop and its companion apps to Cocoa in the model of Photoshop Lightroom. Most desktop apps don't necessarily demand 64-bit support, but Photoshop's use of extremely large image files makes it a good candidate for porting.

Currently, Mac OS X Leopard hosts both 32-bit and 64-bit apps on top of a 32-bit kernel (below). Using PAE, the 32-bit kernel can address 32GB of RAM in the Mac Pro and Xserve; Apple's consumer machines only support 4GB RAM, but unlike 32-bit operating systems they can use the entire 4GB (with appropriate hardware support). Leopard's 32-bit kernel enabled Apple to ship 64-bit development tools to give coders the ability to build applications that can work with huge data sets in a 64-bit virtual memory space (and port over existing 64-bit code), without also requiring an immediate upgrade to all of Mac OS X's drivers and other kernel-level extensions. That transition will happen with Snow Leopard.

How big of a deal is the move to 64-bit apps? As Apple's developer documentation points out, "To put the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit computing into perspective, imagine that you are working with a dataset in which the road area of the Golden Gate bridge can be represented in a 32-bit address space. With 64 bits of address space, you have the ability to model the entire surface of the Earth at the same resolution."

Road to Snow Leopard

The 64-bit Kernel in Snow Leopard

Apple is expanding its 64-bit support in Snow Leopard down into the kernel. This will enable Mac systems to accommodate more than the 32GB of RAM currently available via 32-bit PAE. With kernel support for full 64-bit memory addressing, Apple can add as much RAM as users can afford. Of course, if you're buying RAM from Apple, upgrading a Mac Pro to 32GB of RAM currently costs $9,100, so it might be some time before home users decide they need more than that much RAM.

While Leopard's 32-bit kernel can run both 32- and 64-bit apps, a 64-bit app can not load 32-bit plugins or shared libraries, and vice versa. The 64-bit kernel similarly requires 64-bit kernel extensions and drivers, as it can't mix 32- and 64-bit code either. The move to a 64-bit kernel will therefore require an across-the-board upgrade for all kernel drivers in Snow Leopard.

Snow Leopard will also require developers who write any plugins for Mac OS X apps to recompile their code to 64-bit. This includes everything from System Preferences panes to web plugins. The reason for the massive upgrade will be that Apple will also deliver the entire system compiled as both 32- and 64-bit, from the Finder to iTunes to Safari. On 32-bit Macs, Snow Leopard will run normally, but on x64 Macs, everything will get a significant boost as every app on the system will benefit from the advantages of x64, particularly the extra registers supplied by x64 and missing from the 32-bit PC.

That advantage will outweigh the additional overhead caused by moving to 64-bits and the resulting use of larger data items. In contrast, there would be no real advantage in recompiling Snow Leopard and its apps for 64-bit PowerPC G5s, as the G5 is not currently constrained by the register problem of 32-bit x86; the 64-bit G5 has the same number of registers as the G4, because the G4 already had plenty. The G5 actually runs 64-bit apps slightly slower because of the increased overhead imposed by 64-bit addressing. For that reason, Snow Leopard will apparently be Intel-only.

Road to Snow Leopard

More information on Snow Leopard appears on AppleInsider's Mac OS X 10.6 page.