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Sun gets graphic in its battle with SGI

The Java creator boosts the power of its graphics workstations in an effort to unseat SGI and expand beyond its current stronghold in the server market.

Sun Microsystems has boosted the power of its graphics workstations in an effort to unseat SGI and expand beyond its current stronghold in the server market.

Sun this week announced a new graphics card, the Expert 3D, which the company says will allow its Ultra 60 and 80 workstations to more quickly draw three-dimensional shapes with textured surfaces, said Subra Mohan, manager of Sun's high-end graphics products. The products are part of Sun's effort to steal away Unix workstation business from SGI, long the top dog among customers who use computers for tasks such as designing cars, making digital movies or visualizing satellite images.

"Everybody wants to take away SGI customers because they haven't done much on the Unix side," said D.H. Brown Associates analyst Sarang Ghatpande. "Their price competitiveness has gone down considerably."

The addition of the new graphics card could boost acceptance of Sun's Ultra 60 and Ultra 80 workstations, which have been hobbled by comparatively weak CPU performance. Later this year, Sun will unveil new workstations that incorporate the UltraSparc III "Cheetah" processor--and those machines will be more critical to Sun's success, Ghatpande said.

Although Sun is in far stronger financial condition than struggling SGI, persuading loyal customers to switch computer makers is never an easy task. Companies typically must purchase new hardware, retrain staff, and modify software.

In addition, Sun should be worrying about Unix stations from Hewlett-Packard and IBM, as well as Windows machines from several companies, Ghatpande said. Sun has done a healthy business selling its low-end Ultra 5 workstations, Unix machines that cost as little as $3,000 and use ordinary PC hardware. However, Sun's lead in the single-CPU Unix workstation market is now threatened by HP's new B2000 system. "The B2000 is a very tough competitor with very high performance," Ghatpande said.

Meanwhile, SGI is not sitting still in the face of increased competition from Sun. In the very high end of the market, SGI last week released its new InfiniteReality3 graphics system for its expensive but extremely powerful Onyx2 workstations, a combined system that can handle as many as 128 CPUs. Machines of this caliber are used by customers such as the U.S. Army to simulate piloting helicopters in battlefield conditions.

"At this category, with Onyx2 and InfiniteReality, they don't have any competition," Ghatpande said. "It's not a big market, (but) people will continue buying them."

As Sun attacks SGI at the high end, Windows workstations are encroaching on the low end. In the Windows market, Dell has wrested market leadership from Hewlett-Packard, SGI has backed down from its own elaborate design, and Intergraph continues to produce high-end machines. SGI, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Compaq have dual product lines with high-end Unix workstations and less expensive Windows machines.

One key part of Sun's attack on SGI is lining up support from the makers of specialized software, known as independent software vendors, or ISVs. Sun announced no new software partners with its Expert 3D system, but some new ones will be announced at the upcoming graphics convention Siggraph, Mohan said.

One of Sun's strong suits is software support, particularly with the momentum behind Solaris, Sun's version of the Unix operating system, Ghatpande said.

But software support, while essential, isn't all a company needs to carve out a presence in a market.

For example, at the lower end of the graphics market Microsoft has had only limited success stealing away graphics design customers from Apple. And that's despite years of trying, a high level of competition in the market, financial troubles at Apple, and Windows support from major desktop graphics software companies such as Quark and Adobe.

Sun's biggest ally, though, is its strong market position. It has eight times the revenue of SGI, giving it the profile and the research and development resources to execute long-term plans.

One of those plans involves a new graphics processor, the MAJC chip. This new chip, designed to handle digital media such as images or sound, can be reconfigured to perform several different tasks, Mohan said. All future graphics boards from Sun will be based on the MAJC design.

Intense3D is supplying the Expert 3D card that Sun is now using. Intense3D spokeswoman Dana Staples said Sun's card uses the same core "Wildcat" technology that's used in Windows computers, but that the card itself was developed to Sun's specifications.

The biggest improvement of the $3,495 Expert 3D card is the support for "texture maps"--images that are painted onto the skin of three-dimensional models like bark on a tree. The card uses the Intense3D Wildcat chip and has 64MB of memory specifically for storing textures, Mohan said.

One measure of three-dimensional display capability is how fast a card can draw the triangles out of which models are constructed. The new Sun card can draw 6.04 million triangles per second with shading and light sources. With textures overlaid as well, the card can draw 4.4 million triangles per second, Mohan said.