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SGI underscores Linux commitment

SGI is taking steps to make Linux run better on its new Intel-based workstations, saying it will offer Linux workstations by the end of the year.

SGI is taking steps to make Linux run better on its new Intel-based workstations, marking another step in the company's move toward the open source operating system.

Linux, a Unix-like operating system that's available for free or very low cost, continues to take the computing world by storm, having recently convinced giants such as IBM, Dell, and Compaq that they need to have some Linux-based products. Now the software seems to be making a claim for top billing at SGI, a company that's been struggling as it tries to move its product line into the intensely competitive Windows-Intel realm.

"We intend to have Linux workstation capabilities by the end of the year," said Geoff Stedman, manager of market development for SGI's workstation division. "We want to have a product that will satisfy the Linux market, as opposed to saying, 'You're on your own.'"

While SGI wrote some software that enables the latest version of Linux to boot on SGI's Visual Workstations, the software can't take advantage of the machine's graphics performance because it lacks the proper drivers--the software that lets programs speak directly to the hardware.

Stedman added, however, there aren't many Linux programs available to take advantage of SGI's graphics performance. "Windows NT is still the focus in terms of where our growth is going to come from," he said in an interview today.

Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, is taking a similar tack. Yesterday announced Linux-ready versions of its Intel-based Visualize workstations, which come with an Elsa graphics card. The systems are due in the third quarter.

SGI future centers on Linux
Linux is a key plank in SGI's future, and the company has been more aggressive than others such as IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, or Sun in promoting it.

In fact, Beau Vrolyk, senior vice president for SGI's computer systems business unit, believes that in 10 years there will be only three operating systems in servers: Linux, Microsoft's Windows NT, and Monterey, a joint Unix project of IBM, Sequent, and Santa Cruz Operation.

The company will use Linux not only for its upcoming servers based on 32-bit Intel chips, but also on the 64-bit chip machines due to arrive in mid-2000 when Intel releases the Merced chip, Vrolyk said.

In contrast, Irix, the company's in-house version of Unix, will be used only on SGI computers based on its MIPS chips, Vrolyk said. SGI isn't planning an immediate retreat from the MIPS systems, but the company has said it will move to the Intel architecture over time. "It would be a minimum of five years, maybe ten, before there was any backoff," Vrolyk said.

Although SGI foresees Linux and Irix converging, for the time being Irix is way ahead in computers with lots of processors. Irix can run on a system with as many as 128 chips, and SGI is working with NASA to increase that to 512. "Irix is good for very large single-system-image computers. That's a long ways from Linux as we know it today," Vrolyk said.

SGI will help that convergence by releasing lots of Irix code to the open source community, where it can be incorporated directly into Linux. "There will be a steady flood of technology from Irix into Linux," Vrolyk said, mentioning the release of SGI's XFS file system as an example.

Investing in VA Linux
Meanwhile, SGI has previously invested in VA Linux Systems, a builder and designer of high-end Linux machines that also has received the funding blessing of Intel and others. VA will be a partner with SGI on SGI's first Linux server, which probably won't be very different in hardware from other Intel servers, Vrolyk said.

SGI is one of several that invested $25 million in VA. Intel also has invested in VA twice, the first time to help ensure that Linux runs on Intel's upcoming 64-bit chips. VA also is working on making sure Linux can run on eight-processor machines.

SGI's Linux and NT servers will arrive simultaneously, Vrolyck said. Though SGI is working on bringing some of its high-end hardware to its Intel-based machines, those improvements probably won't show up until the company releases the servers based on the 64-bit Intel chips.