SGI counts on Linux for new servers

Workstation maker SGI releases its first Intel-based server computers with both Microsoft Windows NT and Linux operating systems, but Linux is getting top billing in the long run.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Workstation maker SGI has released its first Intel-based server computers with both Microsoft Windows NT and Linux operating systems, but Linux is getting top billing in the long run.

Windows NT just won't be ready in time for what SGI has in mind. The company needs an operating system that can run on machines with dozens of processors, said Jan Silverman, SGI's new vice president of marketing for computer systems.

For SGI, which has been casting about for a recovery strategy, it's an issue of being tied to someone else's schedule.

"You're really caught in a bind how much value you can add to the NT operating system," because Microsoft controls the development, Silverman said. SGI hopes to stand out from the crowd by making its Intel servers able to use dozens or even hundreds of processors, and for that, "you need an operating system where you can actually muck around with the kernel," he said.

SGI is banking on the open-source Linux technology to boost its most current recovery plan. Further updates are expected next Thursday at SGI's analyst conference.

SGI has been in the midst of a tough, years-long transition from computers based on MIPS chips and running the Irix operating system to those based on Intel chips and running Linux and Windows NT. The company also is trying to expand its presence beyond its well-known graphics systems into servers.

Though the company reported a profitable quarter last week, the stars have not been in alignment for SGI's recovery.

For one thing, the first 64-bit chips from Intel have been delayed until at least mid-2000, a fact that cost SGI, according to an earlier interview with SGI chief executive Rick Belluzzo. "We had to add a couple generations of our own MIPS microprocessors, which costs us money," he said.

Also difficult has been the fact that SGI's first Intel machines, though praised by analysts, were delayed by months because of design and manufacturing hurdles.

Then there's the problem that Windows NT servers, while a growing market, are already sold by several vastly larger companies than SGI, including Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard.

Thus the addition of Linux, the glue that will join SGI's multiprocessor experience with Intel chips.

When Intel's first 64-bit "IA-64" chip arrives next year, SGI will be ready with multiprocessor systems based on the company's ccNUMA architecture, Silverman said. "When we get to the IA-64 space, it's an open question how many CPUs NT will scale to. 128? Probably not. Eight? Yes. Sixteen? Maybe," Silverman said. "For our strategic technical advantage, we need to go to Linux."

In the shorter term, though, the company will sell ordinary Intel servers using both Windows NT and Red Hat's version of Linux, said Courtney Carr, product manager for the new line of servers.

While NT enjoys a big advantage over Linux right now in terms of what server programs are available to run on the machines, SGI expects Linux will catch up, Silverman said. "You can't ignore the rich application availability in NT today. It would be foolhardy not to have NT available, but we have every expectation that you'll see a large application base on Linux," he said.

With the servers, SGI is aiming for the high end of the Intel server market. The first models are four-processor machines using Intel's top-end Xeon chip and costing between about $8,000 and the high $30,000 range, Carr said.

In the fall, a two-processor version is planned, and early next year, and eight-processor version, the company said.

The NT machines are geared to be servers at the front end of larger systems housing heavy-duty computing tasks such as housing databases, Silverman said. The Linux machines will be good for Internet service providers, programmers, researchers, and engineers, but much of the role of the machines will be to establish the credibility of Linux systems as viable for big business, "seeding the market" for later Linux systems, Silverman said.

"You've got to admit that today, Linux is not accepted as an enterprise-class operating environment. By the time IA-64 comes out, we hope a lot of those questions will be answered," he said.

SGI will support the Linux systems extensively, Carr said. They will offer services for round-the-clock technical support, system installation, training, customization, and application porting.