Alice in Videoland (Or: Looking for Mr Ed)

I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date. Visiting Silicon Graphics in Mountain View, near San Francisco, you can't help thinking you could be playing a minor role in Alice in Wonderland. Everyone is rushing off to a meeting. Even the supremo himself, Ed McCracken, is tied up at meetings, although we do get to see the March Hare, technology wizard John Mashey, as he scurries to our hidey hole tearing a muffin to pieces and absent-mindedly tossing crumbs roughly in the direction of his mouth.

I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. Visiting Silicon Graphics in Mountain View, near San Francisco, you can’t help thinking you could be playing a minor role in Alice in Wonderland. Everyone is rushing off to a meeting.

Even the supremo himself, Ed McCracken, is tied up at meetings, although we do get to see the March Hare, technology wizard John Mashey, as he scurries to our hidey hole tearing a muffin to pieces and absent-mindedly tossing crumbs roughly in the direction of his mouth.

It’s not too inappropriate that it should be just like a movie — this is the company that produces the best animation graphics around, used by the likes of Pixar (owned by Steve Jobs of Apple and Next Step fame) and Weta, owned by our very own Peter Jackson in Wellington. Rooms are named after movies for which SGI has provided the technology. The meeting room that we, the press, are using, is called Beauty and the Beast, but before we enter we are given a quick sweep around the lower floor to see where the great names reside. This is a company that believes in flat management. McCracken’s partitioned cubicle is one of several larger ones, tucked away in a far corner. If you expected his space to be labelled The Terminator, guess again. Besides, if we are into movies, I would prefer to call him Mr Ed.

And Mr Ed is busy — real busy, as they say in America. During our two days at SGI we hope to be honoured by his presence. But Mr Ed is at board meetings, we are told. Mr Ed would really like to see us, we hear, but he is just plain too busy. In fact, we hear someone whisper, he is so busy with his board he has had to turn down a meeting with a $US100 million customer. OK, we can understand we shouldn’t take priority — especially in the light of SGI’s latest troubles — a poor quarter, server sales down on expectations and the ever-looming menace of Windows NT.

So we don’t get to see Mr Ed, but we do get to see the March Hare, and that is quite an experience. Mashey gives us most of what we want to hear, although there are some confusing undertones to his presentation, punctuated as it is by flying muffin crumbs. Most importantly, Mashey tells us that if we, as people in the computer business, are used to change, we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. A tsunami is just around the corner, he says, and it will come from a most unlikely source — disk technology. If you expected storage to expand in line with Moore’s Law — that’s a doubling of power every 18 months — you are in for a shocker: try doubling Moore’s Law once again. Think of 10 times more disk space coming in one jump and you will be even closer to where we are going. Think of all the data that will readily encompass and the need to organise it and mine it. If we don’t learn to deal with it, we’ll suffer a period of exceptional infrastress, says Mashey.

Mashey’s intelligence on disk technology comes from what he has seen in Silicon Valley. He names two firms that will fuel the tsunami — Terastor and Seagate, via its $US350 million purchase of Quinta — with laser-enhanced magnetics. Think of other periods when major shifts have caused infrastress: when computer technology shifted from 16 bits to 32 bits, the coming shift from 32 bits to 64-bit technology via Intel’s Merced chip. A 30Gb drive in your laptop will put pressure on your filing system, on backup needs (and the time they will take), on your system I/O. Software will need to be rewritten to meet increased

capacity.

And that’s just the system on your desk. Think of your network and the Internet. Infrastress will push you to gigabit ethernet and beyond, soon, as you start to come to grips with more data in the form of images, graphics, models, audio and video. “Create, understand, store, move — or else risk drowning in a wave of infrastructure stress,” says Mashey. Symptoms of infrastress: “Bottlenecks, odd limits, workarounds, instability, unpredictability, nonlinear surprise, over-frequent releases, multiple versions and hardware that becomes obsolete before it has depreciated.”

So where’s the white knight in all of this? Well, guess who? No company takes a bunch of journos all the way the Silicon Valley unless it believes it has an answer. It’s not Windows NT — and yes, Mashey (“My wife uses it on her PC — I use Unix”) has a great deal of respect for NT but when you are talking about massive disk capacity, huge bandwidth and I/O uninhibited by excessive latency, the answer is SGI and Unix. And that disk expansion, by the way, won’t go away while the Web keeps eating up demand at a huge rate. Meanwhile, SMP (symmetric multiprocessor) systems are struggling to keep pace with demand.

Let’s say it again: as far as SGI is concerned, the answer lies in the vendor’s traditional Unix dimension, not Windows NT. There are a number of reasons for that: microprocessor design, expansion, bandwidth, latency, I/O technology, bus technology, backup. You name it, and in Mashey’s view NT can’t handle it at the high end. Think of it, says Mashey, as trying to drink the Pacific ocean through a straw.

That doesn’t mean you won’t see NT technology creeping into SGI. It is committed to supporting it, but there are problems with a high-end solutions provider offering low-end solutions. Not least among them is the supply chain itself and the creation of useful margins for resellers.

So expect to see a front-end solution, a workstation with special capabilities a la SGI graphics, appearing on your desktop sometime in the next year. Don’t expect to see a server, although anything is possible if market conditions demand it.

Mashey believes that few chips can cut it when it comes to competing with SGI’s MIPS chip technology. Rule out Alpha, Intel, IBM’s PowerPC, Sun’s Sparc, he says. One that could succeed is Hewlett-Packard’s PA RISC chip, but HP is winding that one down as it heads toward the Merced. Meanwhile, Microsoft is back where SGI was in 1988-89 as it struggles to achieve performance with six- to eight-chip systems. “Microsoft is interested in unit volume, not single sales,” says Mashey. “SGI scalability is not within its mindset at present.”

Mashey’s analysis does make sense, given his analysis of how storage demand will finally end up. What is hard to know is exactly how long Microsoft et al will take to catch up — but it certainly won’t happen in the next 18 months.

Meanwhile, SGI must cope with its own problems. It has been criticised internationally for its lack of strength on the service side, but various SGI gurus tell us that is now a thing of the past — helped along by expertise derived from the purchase of super-computer company Cray.

When you visit SGI it is also evident where its key interest has lain in the past — in multimedia systems and graphics. Its Origin servers, which fit together into modules as large as you can imagine, are probably without peer and are used widely throughout the animation and special effects business, including Steve Jobs’ Pixar studios.

We visit a special SGI showcase theatre, the Visionarium, for a stunning display of graphics power. Three projectors cast a single image on to a curved screen to provide animation at the rate of 60 frames a second. The applications are endless — for entertainment, for crash analysis, for patient analysis in hospitals, for flight simulations. One presentation features the interior of a room in the Vatican with murals by Raphael. We zoom up close to catch minute detail in high resolution and hover at ceiling height to observe the work from all angles. It’s breathtaking.

At a nearby development lab we see advanced animation technology. Fantasy characters become animated via keyboard manipulation, and a cartoon figure on a screen takes on the movements of a sensor-clad employee. SGI New Zealand’s Greg Sitters tells us that television stations can save cash by using virtual sets in their studios. The user can’t tell the difference.

That’s showbiz, but SGI executives insist it’s also a major entree into commerce now and into the future. The key is raw power and the technology to handle massive I/O and the rest. Where NT won’t be able to hack it in the enterprise, SGI will provide the power, speed and scalability — just plug your systems together like a Tinker Toy for unlimited expansion and undiminished bandwidth.

It’s a combination that appeals to large user sites — particularly government departments and New Zealand-wide industries such as Telecom where performance and analysis tools are a primary consideration for vast amounts of data — not forgetting the ability to back up as much as a terabyte in an hour. Such power has obvious application in areas such as data mining — and SGI shows us a front-end tool producing graphical representation of census data on the fly. To put it mildly, it is stunning. SGI itself uses it — working through a Netscape browser — to provide a simple and integrated view of manufacturing data residing on a wide variety of systems and databases. Solutions marketing manager Mike Apker points to its use as a dynamo application for presenting information from multiple legacy databases. One can also see it as a useful extension to our own Jade from Cardinal.

Yet another useful product from SGI is its Cosmo VRML Web authoring tool. Cosmo president Dr Kai-Fu Lee shows how it can add a new dimension to Web presentation — although his demonstration game is close to a megabyte in size. More than 8 million of Cosmo Player have been distributed over the Web, aided by its incorporation into Netscape Communicator.

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