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SGI uses ATI for graphics behemoths

Silicon Graphics Inc. introduces a new high-end visualization machine that marks a major change for the company: reliance on mainstream video technology from ATI.

Silicon Graphics on Monday introduced a new high-end visualization machine that marks a major change for the company: reliance on mainstream video technology from ATI Technologies.

The new Onyx4 UltimateVision system uses ATI workstation video cards instead of the SGI-designed graphics systems the company has relied on for years, said Shawn Underwood, marketing director for SGI's visual systems. The systems start at less than $45,000. But in high-end configurations with 64 of SGI's MIPS 16000A processors, they cost well over $300,000.

"We've been waiting for the commodity suppliers to provide the key features we needed for visualization. This round of chips is really the first time they've had the image quality and the performance we need to put these into a high-performance architecture," said Guy Russell, a senior manger of SGI's Onyx team.

SGI competitors that have embraced mainstream graphics technology include IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, Quantum 3d and Evans & Sutherland, said Jon Peddie of Tiburon, Calif.-based consultancy .

"The era of proprietary graphics for workstations has almost disappeared," Peddie said.

The new SGI system's performance will be five times better than its predecessor, while the price-performance ratio will be 40 times better, Russell said.

"It's right on the mark. It's going to deliver the kind of performance and price performance that the industry wants," Peddie said. "It's going to make Quantum3D and Evans & Sutherland uncomfortable."

But being able to take advantage of mainstream technology is a double-edged sword. For example, SGI is losing customers such as DreamWorks, which found that HP's workstations with conventional technology were good enough for the job. And SGI has been struggling financially, announcing a 400-employee layoff in May.

SGI's systems are more than just graphics cards, though. Its systems have high-speed internal connections to make sure the main processors can keep the graphics cards busy.

The systems are used for graphically challenging chores such as looking at oil field computer models, reviewing new car designs or simulating military combat. Even Procter&Gamble has used them to visualize airflow over Pringle's potato chips to maximize the speed they can be packed in cans without crumbling.

One customer for the new Onyx4 is Los Alamos National Laboratory, which bought a customized 80-processor system as part of its program to simulate nuclear weapons explosions and the effects of aging in order to guarantee warheads will detonate when intended and won't when not.

That system will be able to handle screens with 120 million pixels--the picture elements that make up computer screen images--and will be able to draw 40 billion pixels per second, SGI said.

SGI has retrenched to its graphics specialty after an ambitious but failed attempt to expand into markets for general-purpose servers and Windows workstations. As part of its restructuring plans to scale back, SGI transferred some employees to ATI rival Nvidia.

"If you look at the makeup of Nvidia and ATI, there's a lot of SGI people at both. We don't have any particular allegiance," Underwood said. "The basic building blocks of our architecture use the cards as an industry-standard, off-the-shelf product. If a year from now it makes more sense to do it with an Nvidia card, we can do that," he added.

SGI isn't the only company to incorporate conventional graphics cards. While Sun and HP still maintain their proprietary in-house designs, those companies also use standard technology from ATI, Nvidia and 3DLabs, Peddie said.

One drawback of moving to mainstream graphics cards is that some customers have written their own software with support for SGI graphics systems that use extensions to graphics standards.

But SGI is continuing with some support for its own VPro graphics line. It announced a new four-processor workstation called the Tezro. That system will cost $20,500 for an entry-level, single-processor version, with a four-processor model costing $40,500, said Dixie Fisher, senior marketing manager of the workstations group.

SGI's systems use the company's Irix version of the Unix operating system running on MIPS processors at 600MHz or 700MHz, with future speed increases planned, SGI said. The company also has begun selling a Linux-based system called the Altix 3000 that uses Intel's Itanium processor.

While SGI once had planned to move completely to Itanium chips, it backed off and now plans a two-pronged processor strategy for the foreseeable future.

Supporting MIPS may be expensive, but it's a necessity for SGI as it seeks to hang on to longtime customers with software written for the systems, Peddie said. "They're stuck. They have to" do it, he said. "There are billions of lines of code on those processors."