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HP's goal: strongest workstation

Hewlett-Packard has introduced an extraordinarily powerful workstation. Silicon Graphics, take heed.

Hewlett Packard (HPW) will commercialize advanced workstation technology early next year designed to reduce the time required to render complex graphical blueprints from hours to minutes.

The kind of punch HP is planning will give graphics workstation leader Silicon Graphics a run for its money. But this machine isn't for just anyone: The HP workstation, which will run the Unix operating system, starts at more than $100,000.

The HP Visualize PxF1, a massively parallel computer animated by thousands of pixel processors, is the second leg of a major push by the Palo Alto, California, computing giant to play a dominant role in the graphical arena. HP is also pursuing the lower end of the market with workstations based on Intel processors running the Windows NT operating system.

Based on the PixelFlow technology developed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the PxFl--which also carries the code name "Everest"--will be the most powerful graphics machine available commercially when released, claims Jim Christensen, director of technical computing programs at HP.

Although directed at engineering professionals who need 3D modeling, the PxFl's technological core will migrate down HP's product line, to include workstations running NT.

"In May, HP launched a crusade to retake the graphics lead from Silicon Graphics," he said. "This will open a number of doors to provide workstations and servers into a number of accounts."

Technically speaking, the PxF1 is a "graphics augmentation engine," according to Joel Orr, president of Joel Orr Associates International, a marketing analysis firm. It is not a workstation itself, but rather a companion machine specifically focused on image processing.

Each PixelFlow "flow unit" contains two powerful PA-8000 microprocessors and 8,192 pixel processors that can handle up to 16 million triangles per second. The minimum configuration consists of four flow units, Christensen said, while some users may expand to nine flow units. In fact, in most cases, the customer will likely pick up the workstation just to use the peripheral, Orr added.

Initially, the computer will work with HP's version of the Unix OS only, but it will be ported in some form to other platforms.

PixelFlow technology makes image rendering more efficient by cutting down redundant processes and using more pixel processors, Orr said. In the end, users can not only work with more data, the machine manipulates the data in a more effective manner.

"We are clearly aimed at people and users who have an insatiable desire for polygon processing," Christensen said. Likely applications include 3D engineering as a substitute for model building.

HP's efforts in the graphics arena began in earnest in May when it released DirectModel, a set of application protocol interfaces for large model rendering in conjunction with Microsoft (MSFT). The PxF1 is the second leg of their quest. The third will come this fall when HP releases a series of graphics accelerators. Later, of course, will come greater market proliferation.

"You can expect to see a much more integrated version of the PixelFlow machine in three to four years" on lower-level machines, Orr said.