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SGI coming out of its OS shell

The company announces plans to add Intel-based servers running Windows NT and Linux, speeding the company's expansion to broader markets.

Silicon Graphics is coming out of its shell.

The Mountain View, California, company announced plans yesterday to add Intel-based servers running Windows NT and Linux to its product line, speeding the company's expansion out of its years as a company that sold hardware that used only MIPS chips and SGI's Irix version of the Unix operating system.

SGI's new chief executive, Rick Belluzzo, announced last April that SGI would eventually migrate its products to Intel's upcoming 64-bit chips. Intel delayed the arrival of those "Merced" chips from 1999 to 2000, but SGI hasn't slowed its move to Intel: SGI will release servers using the current generation of 32-bit chips.

The move to add 32-bit Intel servers is the result of the fact that Intel has "strengthened the IA-32 road map," said Todd Johnson, SGI's senior vice president for worldwide marketing. "We think that a large portion of the market will stay in IA-32 for a long time."

SGI has hedged its bets in the high end, too, extending the MIPS chip lineup through 2002, including processors running at 600 MHz and 800 MHz and a schedule to notch up chip speeds every six to nine months, Johnson said. "Given the date change to IA-64 [Intel's 64-bit chip architecture], it becomes increasingly important that we have a smoother transition path for high-end customers," Johnson said.

The company still plans to migrate servers eventually to IA-64, he said: "We have not changed any plans around IA-64."

The news is a mixed bag for Intel. Although SGI still supports IA-64 and will now sell IA-32 systems, SGI has joined Hewlett-Packard is what amounts to a declaration that it can't sit idly by waiting for the transition to the Merced generation to be complete.

Johnson said SGI plans to sell servers with Linux installed, but the details of how that will happen have yet to be determined. SGI also said it will provide "full support for Linux," including support from SGI's technical support staff in the field and at the company. That support will be at the same level as for its current high-end server line.

"A lot of our customers, especially in the technical, scientific, and educational arenas, are really clamoring for Linux," Johnson said.

In a way, Linux is a natural choice for SGI. It provides a way to sell computers with mainstream Intel-based hardware, but it stays closer to the Unix fold where SGI has its roots. Linux bridges the gap across the Windows/Intel and Unix/RISC divide.

Backing for Linux grows
SGI isn't the only company backing Linux. HP announced Linux support Wednesday, although HP will transfer Linux technical support questions to Red Hat instead of handling them in-house as SGI will.

In addition, IBM is "aggressively" evaluating Linux and is trying out the operating system at some customer sites.

Compaq has made sure Linux works on its upcoming DS20 Alpha-based servers and will sell a "naked" version with no operating system so Linux can be installed easily. And Dell has said it will sell servers and workstations certified to work with Red Hat's Linux.

SGI's announcement comes shortly after the arrival of SGI's new Visual Workstations, the first Intel products from SGI. Although the workstations come with Windows NT, SGI has helped in the effort to make the new version of Linux operating system work on them.

The new Visual Workstations features standard Intel chips, but feature proprietary hardware to boost data transfer speeds to peripherals and graphics. However, SGI says the machines run any Windows NT software.

SGI and HP: peas in a pod?
Before he came to SGI, Belluzzo ran HP's computer operations, and now SGI is beginning to resemble that company in several ways.

SGI, like HP, has a two-prong strategy to use both Intel and RISC chips. It uses two operating systems, Windows NT for the low-end machines and Unix for the high end. And now, like HP, it has added Linux into the equation in the Intel area.

Linux for the two companies' RISC chips is in a more nascent, exploratory phase. SGI and others have been working on a version of Linux for SGI's MIPS-based machines. And HP has been working on a port of Linux for its PA-RISC chips.

Johnson described the work to bring Linux to MIPS machines as a "skunkworks effort," and added that right now, bringing Linux to the MIPS architecture isn't part of SGI's plan. The MIPS servers on average sell with eight or more processors, and that's not a market where there's a lot of demand for Linux, he said.