Silicon Graphics, Inc., commonly called SGI, began as a maker of graphics display terminals in 1982. It was founded by Jim Clark based on his work with geometry pipelines, specialized software or hardware that accelerates the display of three-dimensional images. SGI was originally incorporated as a California corporation in November 1981, and reincorporated as a Delaware corporation in January 1990.
The products produced by SGI, as well as the strategies and market positions pursued by the company, have varied since SGI was founded. However, the graphical computing workstation industry has remained a focus and core business of SGI throughout its history.
First generation of products
The first machines were designed to be connected to a DEC VAX computer as a terminal, handling only the actual display. After that, SGI began using Motorola 68000 microprocessors running the UNIX operating system to power the machine. Their height was reached with the SGI 3130, a complete UNIX workstation using the 68030 microprocessor with an attached Weitek math coprocessor.
The 3X30 was powerful enough to support a complete 3D animation and rendering package on its own without mainframe support. With large capacity hard drives (300MB X 2), streaming tape and 10baseT ethernet it could be the centerpiece of an animation operation.
With the introduction of the 4D series, SGI switched over to using the MIPS RISC microprocessors. These machines were correspondingly more powerful, able to address more memory and came with powerful on board math capability. These machines made much of the SGI name as 3D graphics became more popular on television and film.
SGI expanded these machines up to the massive Onyx supercomputers, the size of refrigerators and capable of supporting up to 64 processors while managing up to three streams of high resolution, fully realized 3D graphics.
Once inexpensive PCs began to catch up with SGI's bread-and-butter—the higher-priced specialized graphical workstations—in terms of graphics performance, SGI concentrated on its high performance server capabilities, offering servers for digital video and the Web. Many SGI graphics engineers have left to work at newer companies, contributing to the PC 3D graphics revolution.
Name and logo changes
In response to these market changes, Silicon Graphics Inc. changed its corporate identity to "SGI" in an attempt to clarify their current market position as a more than simply a graphics company, although the legal name of the company remained unchanged. At the same time SGI announced a new logo—simply the letters "sgi" in a stylized lowercase font—which drew criticism for wasting the professional goodwill associated with the previous box-outline logo.
Alias, Wavefront and Cray acquisitions
In 1995, SGI purchased Alias Research and Wavefront Technologies and merged the companies into Alias|Wavefront, now known as Alias Systems Corporation. Later, in June 2004, SGI sold Alias to the private equity investment firm Accel-KKR for $57.1 million.
In February 1996, SGI purchased Cray Research, and began to use marketing names such as "CrayLink" for (SGI developed) technology integrated into the SGI server line. SGI later sold part of the Cray product line to Tera Computer Company on March 31, 2000. SGI also distributed its remaining interest in MIPS Technologies, Inc. through a spin-off effective June 20, 2000.
Late 1990s and recent developments
The company has been drifting in recent years, since its high cost structure makes it tough to compete with cheaper alternatives. An attempt to introduce workstations running Windows NT (see also SGI Visual Workstation) was interpreted by some SGI loyalists as a breach of SGI's commitment to its own MIPS-based line.
SGI user base and core market
Those who use SGI computers tend to be fiercely loyal, but the companies that spend tens of thousands of dollars on them are rapidly losing patience. The porting of Maya to GNU/Linux and the Apple Macintosh is looking like a watershed in this development; there will soon be little reason to buy a $40,000 SGI machine when a $3,500 Macintosh or a generic x86 machine would do.
Conventional wisdom holds that SGI's core market has traditionally been Hollywood special effects studios. In fact, SGI's largest markets in terms of dollars of revenue generated have always been government and defense applications, energy, and scientific and technical computing.
In recent years, SGI has continued to enhance its line of servers (some go so far as to call them supercomputers) based around the SN architecture. SN, for Scalable Node, is a technology developed by SGI in the mid-1990s. SN is an example of NUMA: non-uniform memory access. In an SN system, processors, memory, and a memory and bus controller are coupled together into an entity known as a node. A node is usually a single circuit board. Nodes are connected via a high-speed interconnect originally called CrayLink, since renamed NUMAlink. The result is a system that has no internal bus whatsoever. Rather, access between processors, memory, and I/O devices is facilitated through a switched fabric of links and routers. SN systems scale along several axes at once: as CPU count increases, so does memory capacity, I/O capacity, and system bisection bandwidth.
The first SN system, known as SN-0, was released in 1996 as the Origin family. Based on the MIPS R10000 processor, the Origin 200 scaled from one to four processors, and the Origin 2000 scaled from two to 128 processors. Later enhancements to the Origin 2000 line enabled systems of as large as 512 processors.
The second generation system, originally called SN-1 but later redubbed SN-MIPS, was released in July, 2000, under the product name Origin 3000. The Origin 3000 scaled from 4 to 512 processors, with 1,024-processor configurations delivered by special order to some customers. A smaller, less scalable implementation of the technology followed later under the name Origin 300.
In November, 2002, SGI announced a repackaging of their SN system, under the name Origin 3900. The Origin 3900 quadrupled the processor area density of the SN-MIPS system, from 32 processors per rack up to 128 processors per rack whilst moving to a FAT tree interconnect topology.
In January, 2003, SGI announced a variant of the SN-MIPS platform to be sold under the name Altix 3000. Known internally as SN-IA, the Altix 3000 used Intel Itanium 2 processors in place of the MIPS R1x000 processors in the SN-0 and SN-MIPS families. The Altix 3000 ran the Linux operating system. At the time it was released (and remains so to date), the Altix 3000 was the world's most scalable Linux-based computer, supporting up to 64 processors in a single system node. Multiple nodes could be connected together using the same NUMAlink technology to form what SGI predictably termed "superclusters."
In February of 2004, SGI announced general support for 128 processor nodes to be followed by 256 and 512 processor versions available later that year.
In April, 2004, SGI announced the selling of Alias for approx $57 million. Press release.
In October, 2004, SGI with NASA confirmed that NASA's new Intel� Itanium� 2 processor-based Columbia supercomputer is the most powerful computer in the world. The new supercomputer achieved sustained performance of 42.7 trillion calculations per second (teraflops). Built from SGI� Altix� systems and driven by 10,240 Intel Itanium 2 processors, Columbia's 16-system result easily tops Japan's famed Earth Simulator, rated at 35.86 teraflops.
SGI product line
Current SGI products
- Prism family
- Fuel workstation
- Tezro workstation
- Origin 350 mid-range server
- Origin 3000 MIPS-based high-end server
- Altix 3000 Itanium-based high-end server
- Altix 350 Itanium-based mid-range server
- Onyx4 visualization system
Past SGI products
- SGI 230 Workstation (IA32 Linux/WindowsNT)
- SGI 320 Visual Workstation (IA32 Windows NT)
- SGI 340 Workstation
- SGI 540 Visual Workstation (IA32 Windows NT)
- IRIS series (Motorola 680x0 based workstations and terminals)
- 4D series workstations
- Indigo workstation
- Indy workstation
- Indigo2 workstation
- O2 Workstation
- Octane workstation
- Octane2 workstation
- Crimson (deskside server)
- Challenge S (desktop server)
- Challenge M (desktop server)
- Challenge DM (deskside server)
- Challenge L (deskside server)
- Challenge XL (bigger version of Challenge L)
- Onyx (deskside and larger workstations)
- Onyx2 (deskside and larger workstations)
- Onyx 3000 (Origin 3000 with graphics hardware)
- Origin 200 mid-range server
- Origin 2000 high-end server
- The SGI Buyer's Guide (Excellent!)
- SGI Technical Advice and Information by Ian Mapleson
- Pictures of SGI systems at www.schrotthal.dede:Silicon Graphics
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