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Silicon Graphics scraps MIPS plans

The company abandons ambitious plans for its MIPS processors and is now following a much more limited road map, sources say.

Silicon Graphics (SGI) has quietly scrapped ambitious plans for its MIPS processors and is now following a much more limited road map calling for fewer design improvements, according to sources close to SGI.

The last major MIPS release for servers and workstations is

MIPS roadmap
Model Speed Status
R10000 250 MHz available now
R12000 300 MHz due mid 1998
R14000 400 MHz due 2H 1999
"Beast" N/A canceled
"Capitan" N/A canceled
scheduled for 1999, sources said. SGI will continue to boost processor speeds and incorporate the chip in its high-end computers, but will likely start the phasing out the processor in 2001 as 64-bit chips from Intel become more pervasive and powerful.

The shift in plans results from a variety of economic and technological pressures. SGI has seen sales and profits drop in the past few years as sales of Windows-Intel workstation computers have climbed. The slide has made it more difficult to support the MIPS platform, according to analysts.

But SGI's scaling back of MIPS processor projects also reflects the fact that SGI has already seen the writing on the wall, according to sources close to the company who are familiar with the revamped efforts. At press time, SGI could not be reached for comment regarding future MIPS chip projects.

SGI publicly makes no bones about its plans for an aggressive push into the Windows-Intel workstation market. Later this year, SGI will start making Windows-Intel workstations based around the next-generation "Slot 2" Pentium II processor and Microsoft's Windows NT operating system.

Since SGI plans to eventually use Intel's powerful next-generation 64-bit Merced chip coming in 1999, the company has apparently decided it was better to switch to Intel than fight. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

The move away from MIPS will be a milestone for Silicon Graphics. Until recently, SGI and Sun were the last two major enterprise computing vendors to exclusively use their own chips and operating systems. Last year, both companies entered into limited alliances to port their products to the Intel platform. SGI also cut a development deal with Microsoft.

Shifting to the Windows-Intel technologies removes development difficulties for SGI but also potentially weakens a competitive advantage. At the same time, the phasing-out of MIPS at the high end could endanger the chip platform's life in handheld computers.

Capitan, one of the terminated high-end processors, "was canceled when it became clear that SGI was moving to the 'Wintel' camp," a source close to the company said.

SGI also fell behind on its development schedule. Under a plan announced in May 1997, SGI said it would release in 1998 a chip called the R12000, a 64-bit processor running at 300 MHz using the same socket structure as the current R10000 chip.

The R12000 was to be followed by a chip code-named H1, slated for the first half of 1999, which in turn would have been succeeded by the H2. Both were to contain a new chip architecture aimed at improving the speed at which the processor communicates with main memory.

The R12000 is still due for the middle of the year. However, both the H1 (code-named Beast) and the H2 (code-named Capitan) have been ditched, said sources inside and close to SGI. Instead, SGI will release a chip in 1999 called the R14000, which will essentially be a 400-MHz version of the R12000 made on an advanced production process.

Even with the scaled-down road map, MIPS does not have a long life. There are no planned successors to the R14000, according to sources. To keep chip designers from prematurely jumping ship, SGI has given team members pay raises of close to 50 percent and promised bonuses equivalent to a full year's salary if performance goals under the new plans are met, said a source.

Economically, a decision to move toward Intel processors makes sense because SGI is in a bind, said Peter ffoulkes, workstation analyst for Dataquest. SGI has already made the decision to make Wintel boxes, he pointed out, and supporting both the Intel and MIPS platforms would result in an arduous drain of resources--especially in light of their recent sales problems.

"At this point in time, I question whether they can sustain [both] a MIPS-based architecture and an Intel architecture [at the same time]," ffoulkes said.

But the conversion will not occur overnight, said Stephen Dube, an analyst with Wasserstein Parella Securities. SGI will have to continue to support its Unix-MIPS customers to maintain revenues. Meanwhile, Merced and Windows NT 5.0 remain untested and are not likely to match the performance of Unix systems, making an early, wholesale switch counterproductive.

"They will be working on MIPS for some time. You cannot dead-end customers," he said. "They are going to the Intel platform, but they have customers on the Unix platform."

Intel-based products from SGI should start coming out this year, focused on the low end of the market. An overview published by The Microprocessor Report newsletter in January states that SGI will manufacture low-end Intel-based desktops in the second half of this year and follow with workstations based on the Merced chip in 1999.

A complete transition away from MIPS is likely contingent on a number of factors, according to sources close to SGI. "2001 is probably the crucial year," the source said.