I miss the old SGI. Silicon Graphics was widely regarded as the greatest computer company in Silicon Valley back in the 1990s. Sometimes forgotten--but not gone--SGI was one of our greatest success stories and one of our greatest tragedies.
Apple may have had more revenue by virtue of shipping millions of small systems, but SGI's hardware spanned the range from video-game consoles (the Nintendo 64) to workstations to supercomputers. SGI's Unix-based operating system, IRIX, was one of the most sophisticated in the industry.
I used to lust over SGI machines. I'd obsess over lists of used SGI gear, looking for a great deal that would let me have my own IRIX box at home. In 2004, I finally bought an Octane with MXI graphics... but that was years after these machines were effectively obsolete, and I paid less than 0.5% (1/200th!) of the original retail price of the machine.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, SGI was not well managed, losing huge amounts of money because its leaders would not accept obvious and inevitable industry trends. Eventually SGI focused its remaining efforts on Linux-based supercomputers-- which remain some of the industry's best big systems and continue to bring in significant (but declining) revenue.
But SGI's deemphasis of its workstation business left a vacuum of sorts. Major PC OEMs like Apple, Dell, and HP tried to fill this niche with commodity systems, but these machines generally lacked the scalability of SGI's offerings. If you only needed one or two processors and a moderate amount of RAM, you didn't need SGI... but if you could justify spending six figures on a workstation, PC makers couldn't help you. SGI itself sells a few commodity-based workstations, but they're no longer anything special.
Today, I think one company does more to make up for the diminishment of SGI's workstation business than any other: Boxx Technologies in Austin, Texas. Though still limited to the same commodity processors and chipsets that other PC makers use, Boxx at least builds systems that maximize the potential of the available components.
I met with Boxx at Siggraph earlier this month and learned how the company is positioning itself vs. its competition in the workstation and render-farm markets.
Boxx's RenderBoxx and VizBoxx products seem well designed for professional users doing offline 3D rendering and interactive visualization (respectively), without the sense of overreaching ambition that used to pervade SGI's product lines.
It's rare to find a four-processor workstation anywhere (that's 16 cores with modern quad-core processors), but Boxx has both four-processor and eight-processor machines in its APEXX series. If there's another eight-processor, 32-core workstation on the market, I'm not aware of it. The APEXX 8 can take 256GB of RAM and more than 15 hard drives... the kind of numbers we used to expect from SGI. And fortunately, even the biggest APEXX doesn't have a six-figure price tag.
The APEXX 8 is only available with AMD Opteron processors because Intel's Xeon family can't match Opteron's inherent scalability. Although the Boxx people wouldn't comment, I expect to see 8-way systems based on Intel's new QuickPath Interconnect system architecture sometime in 2009.
QuickPath is the most significant feature of Intel's forthcoming Core i7 processors (aka Nehalem), as well as a new Itanium-family chip code-named Tukwila. I learned about these chips at the Intel Developer Forum, and I'll be writing about them here soon.