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NT workstations a challenge for SGI

With its upcoming Intel/Windows NT workstations, Silicon Graphics is trying to combine cool, proprietary graphics with the low-cost structures of the mainstream computing world.

With its upcoming Intel/Windows NT workstations, Silicon Graphics is trying to combine cool, proprietary graphics with the low-cost structures of mainstream computing world. The question is whether they can.

Coming Monday, the company will roll out Visual Workstations: curvaceous, midnight blue machines based around Intel chips and Microsoft's Windows NT operating system. They're an attempt to combine elements from the company's glorious past and the dynamics of the Wintel world.

To date, SGI systems have used an in-house version of the Unix operating system and internally developed processors based on the MIPS design.

The shift is vital for the Mountain View, California, company. CEO Rick Belluzzo has staked SGI's future on such machines, and the company has all but abandoned long-range plans for workstations based on its MIPS processors. The Visual Workstations have been delayed already.

The systems feature elaborate graphics subsystems (named after toxic chemical compounds), custom modifications to the Windows NT operating system, and memory chips that aren't mainstream.

The question now is whether this will work. These customized elements mean that SGI can't take advantage of all of the interchangeable components featured in Intel/NT workstations from companies such as Intergraph, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, or IBM. In turn, this means SGI's systems will carry a premium price in an increasingly cost-conscious market.

Lithium a key feature
The key feature in the Visual Workstation's speed is the so-called Lithium chip, which enables the computer's processor to communicate with the video subsystem and other components at speeds of up to 3.2 gigabytes per second, sources said. By comparison, the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) found on current Intel/NT machines is much slower, and even the next-generation AGP Pro will provide bandwidth of about a third of what the Lithium chip can handle.

If beta tester excitement is any indication, Lithium is worth it. "There are only one or two machines I know that can best the low-end [SGI] machine I have," one tester said. The only Intel/NT machines that compare are high-end workstations from Intergraph or HP costing $15,000 or more, he said.

"I do have a graphics card that can beat it by about 15 percent," the tester added, but that's a $3,500 graphics card and his SGI machine will retail for about $4,200.

As reported earlier, the Visual Workstation will come in two models, the Pentium II-based 320 and the Xeon-based 540. SGI has traditionally created proprietary systems based on its Irix version of the Unix operating system running on RISC chips from MIPS.

Although beta testers have been checking out the 320 for weeks, even SGI resellers won't be seeing the higher-end 540 for a few more weeks. SGI declined to comment on its new workstations until Monday.

NT shift a necessity
The industry shift to Intel/NT workstations is a serious issue for Unix workstation makers such as SGI and Sun Microsystems, currently the top workstation company based on revenue.

"The trend is absolutely that Intel architecture/Windows NT will be the dominant player over time," Peter ffoulkes, an analyst at Dataquest, has said.

SGI's workstation revenue dropped 23 percent from the third quarter of 1998 to the same quarter a year ago, and the Intel/NT machines will be SGI's "dominant thrust" in the workstation market, ffoulkes said. NT-based SGI machines were due in 1998, but were delayed by a glitch SGI had to fix, executives at the company admitted.

The competition carps
While the custom hardware could be appealing to workstation customers who are moving from Unix/RISC to Windows/Intel along with SGI, executives from Dell and Intergraph believe the proprietary nature of the Visual Workstation will hurt SGI.

"Our experience in this marketplace says the 'best, most technically elegant solution' doesn't always win," said Jeff Edson, president of Intergraph's workstation division. "The proprietary system will lose. In the NT space, it is about openness, it is about options, it is about flexibility. The lack of openness of the system is diametrically opposed to what attracts them to the system."

One person who has been using a Visual Workstation 320 for about two weeks said that one problem with the machine is that operating system updates will have to come from SGI, not Microsoft, meaning a delay of a few days or a few weeks when a service pack is issued. That's because SGI modified the way Windows NT deals with the machine's hardware.

Intergraph, earlier in its history of making Intel/NT workstations, took a similar graphics approach to that used in SGI's new boxes, selling machines that had motherboard-based graphics, Edson said. To disable the built-in graphics system required the user to open the case and change a setting. But while Intergraph liked the system, he said, users weren't happy, because it was perceived to remove flexibility.

Linda Hargrove, vice president of workstations at Dell, added that SGI will have a hard time keeping up with the fast technology improvements and price cuts that characterize the Intel hardware field. "Some may view us as more general purpose, but we are and have been playing directly into [SGI's] market space for 18 months," she said.

Indeed, distinguishing a Dell workstation from an SGI workstation will be at least incrementally harder beginning Monday, when Dell will start selling its workstations with SGI's 17.3-inch LCD display, Hargrove said. The 1600-by-1024 pixel screen requires a special video card. A low-end Dell Workstation with the card will cost $4222, but Dell will sell the display by itself for $2499. A total SGI package will cost more.

The nitty-gritty details
The Visual Workstations have been in beta testing since December, but details are now emerging from testers, SGI's support site, and the technical computer site Ars Technica.

Among the features of the new workstations:

  • The systems use a unified memory architecture in which graphics information destined for display is stored in the computer's main memory instead of in separate video memory on a video card. This technique enables higher-speed communication from the processor to the video system. However, third-party graphics cards can't be used in the system.

  • Video tasks are handled by SGI's Cobalt chipset, which is optimized to handle the OpenGL set of three-dimensional drawing instructions.

  • The systems support devices that plug into PCI slots. But many communications between the processor and other devices bypass the relatively slow PCI bus altogether, instead relying on faster connections using SGI's Lithium chip.

  • Lights on the system use different blinking patterns to help users diagnose hardware problems.

  • The machines comes standard with ports for connecting several types of video and audio systems, including two IEEE 1394 ("Firewire") high-speed communications channels, although SGI's manual notes, "Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 does not support IEEE 1394 devices." Adding Firewire support to NT machines today costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

  • The machines have built-in Ethernet support.

  • The 320 will come with mainstream IDE hard disks but can be upgraded to support the higher-speed SCSI disks.

  • The 320 can use up to two processors, while the 540 holds up to four. The 320 has a minimum of 128MB of memory, but can be expanded to as much as 1GB. The 540 can use as much as 2GB of memory.