SGI regains its vision

SINGAPORE (11/05/2003) - Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) is healthy again, albeit a little slimmer after suffering a major haemorrhage four years ago on the commodity desktop market.

The company has decided to refocus on the key strengths derived from its graphics-powerhouse heritage -- HPC or high-performance computing, large-scale storage, and, of course, massive visualization solutions.

Bill La Rosa, senior vice president for SGI's Intercontinental Field Operations, said the company's move into the desktop arena in 1998/99 was a costly mistake. "The only one making money there was Michael Dell -- he's had the commodity model all figured out," he said.

But SGI had already poured a lot of money into establishing infrastructure and channels. By the time it was evident that things wouldn't work out, the company was caving in. It took three and a half years to turn the company around, said La Rosa.

Today, SGI's new focus is on massive visualization systems, currently with its Mips-Irix Onyx servers and eventually with its new line of servers based on the Itanium and Linux combination.

"Big data needs visualization. Computing prowess may grow under Moore's Law, but the human brain stays the same throughout. Visual representations allow the human mind to process information much better," La Rosa said. "The killer application (for the enterprise) for the 21st century is visualization."

The company ploughs 18 to 20 percent of its revenue back into R&D. Today, SGI dominates the new field of ICV, or immersive collaborative visualization, via its Reality Centres.

"You can say SGI equals ICV," said La Rosa.

Such centers allow workgroups, for example of biologists dealing in life sciences, to coordinate and communicate while "handling" and viewing 3D, virtual-reality representations in a large projection hall.

The company's HPC roadmap has also been repaved.

Giving in to market demand, SGI released a new line of servers earlier this year based on the Itanium and Linux combination. The new Altix series is driven by a SuSE distribution with custom SGI optimizations, and runs on Intel's 64-bit Itanium2s.

This is a divergence from SGI's tradition of Mips-Irix designs in its Origin line -- RISC-based hardware running its own Unix flavor -- and is set to be the new direction.

Reduced instruction set computers (RISC) had been popular previously, before hybrid designs, like Intel's CPUs, came out with better price/performance.

According to SGI, however, what sets it apart from the plethora of vendors offering similar systems is that Altix boasts the same architecture as its Mips brethren -- instead of pumping performance via clusters, SGI increases CPU count in its individual servers.

La Rosa said clustering does not scale as well as SGI's "single system image" using its NUMAflex architecture, a technology that allows globally shared access to all resources with minimal performance impact.

Within "a couple of years", Origin customers will gradually be migrated over to the Altix line, and the Mips legacy will be phased out.

Storage is a third area that has emerged from SGI's core technologies: media firms have had to deal with terabytes since the early 1990s.

SGI has had a distributed file system in its CXFS for a few years, said John Kan, managing director for SGI's ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) operations. The company is offering a new InfiniteStorage SAN series coupled with this file system.

Though sold standalone as well, SGI's storage systems are usually offered as part of large system designs involving other servers, such as the Reality Centres.

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