SGI banks on new workstations

Silicon Graphics debuts its Visual Workstation, the company's first foray out of the Unix workstation sphere and the first step to recapture past glory.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Silicon Graphics debuted its Visual Workstation today, the company's first foray out of the Unix workstation sphere and the first step in an effort to recapture the glory that once was.

SGI showed off the new workstations in San Jose, California, including a high-resolution computer animation shown on the wrap-around Imax movie screen.

The lower-end model, the 320, which uses an Intel Pentium II, will be available in volume on February 1, with a base price of $3,395. The higher-end model, the 540, will be available in the second quarter of 1999 for a starting price of $5,995. The 540 will come with a 500-MHz Xeon chip, one of Intel's "Tanner" chips. The 320 can hold up to two processors; the 540 can use four.

"Oh, man, it's fantastic," said analyst Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Associates in Tiburon, California. "It's going to re-establish Silicon Graphics in a leadership position in a market category that they have been criticized for arrogantly ignoring." The workstations will set a new benchmark for price/performance for graphics workstations using Windows NT, he said.

The new workstations are an important part of SGI's product line, but Peddie cautioned: "This is not going to restore Silicon Graphics to its glory. At $5,000, they have to sell a whole lot of them to become a billion-dollar company. This is just one piece of the Silicon Graphics product strategy."

The Wintel machines are part of SGI's move from systems based on MIPS chips to those based on Intel chips, said Murali Dharan, vice president of marketing for workstations at SGI. SGI will continue to offer workstations with its Irix version of the Unix operating system in addition to NT machines, Dharan said.

While SGI has been developing its Visual Workstations, Wintel competitors such as Dell Computer, Intergraph, Hewlett-Packard, and Compaq Computer have been moving ahead with products of their own.

"Silicon Graphics did lose some sales because they were late responding to the development of Windows NT. But what they came out with was worth waiting for," Peddie said.

"We're late to the NT workstation party, maybe, but we're not late to the workstation business," Dharan said, arguing that the machines' performance and features come from SGI's decade-plus workstation design experience.

The workstations are a digital designer's delight, coming standard with digital and analog video ports, IEEE 1394 ports, audio ports, and 100-Mbps Ethernet built onto the motherboard.

SGI's 10 million transistor Cobalt chip handles the processing of two- and three-dimensional graphics, video signals, and audio information.

The systems won't be able to accept third-party video cards. But Dharan said that other systems face similar obsolescence issues, because the latest graphics cards can't be plugged into older systems. Cards using the upcoming Advanced Graphics Port (AGP) 4X data pathways can't be plugged into systems that only have AGP 2X capability, for example.

Video memory isn't separate from main memory, as on many computers, but instead is shared in a method SGI calls the Integrated Visual Computing architecture. "The real benefit is that you only need to get data into the system once," Dharan said. "Once it's in the system you can do whatever you want. You're not clogging up the system buses by moving data around."

The machines come in curvaceous blue cases. "Any designer in the world is going to want it," Dharan said. "It's going to induce lust."

While the machines have lots of proprietary hardware--a fact that competitors have criticized as unpalatable in the wide-open Wintel world--the SGI workstations will be able to run all shrink-wrapped Windows NT software, Dharan said.

The systems ship with special drivers, such as the one that enables the Universal Serial Bus (USB) keyboard/mouse combination, but those special drivers will be incorporated into Windows 2000, the next version of NT, Dharan said. In the meantime, users may install Microsoft updates to the current version of NT as long as they have the special drivers that SGI supplies with the systems, Dharan said.

About 90 percent of the workstations' "startling performance" comes from SGI's proprietary hardware, Peddie said. "It's not proprietary in the sense that it locks anybody out," though. "SGI has integrated technology in silicon in a way that's different from what other people have done."

What other Wintel workstation vendors have done is collect cards for Ethernet, IEEE 1394, graphics, and other tasks, bolt them together, and make sure they all work together. But SGI's integrated, put-it-all-on-the-motherboard approach will assure lower costs and ample features.

The SGI machines will be built by Space Contractors Incorporated.

The new systems will keep SGI loyalists in the company's fold as NT becomes more significant, Peddie said. "Now they've stemmed the flow of users who were leaving them for NT," he said.

The Windows NT systems "will inject a much-needed new revenue stream into the company," Technology Business Research said in a recent report, but the market analyst group doesn't expect that "NT will be a savior for the company."

Instead, TBR believes SGI's server business will be the factor that "could turn the tide" for the company in 1999, "but we do not believe SGI will ever be able to return to the vital and energetic company it once was."