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3D DIRECT • February 12, 2001

Eternal Truth of the Month

Why SGI Just Won't Die, and Other Metaphysical Stuff

by Swami Rendalotsa

The New Year and the official turn of the Millennium have had this soothsayer feeling a bit nostalgic, of late. Although the past may be looked upon fondly in many respects, there are always regrets. Always "what ifs." Would it have been different if only I had done this? Done that? Ah, as the saying goes, "Hindsight is 20/20." Your past can be crystal clear at times. I like looking back occasionally, and today my third eye focuses on SGI, the company formerly known as Silicon Graphics, Inc.

Ah, and what a varied and complex history to relive. Silicon Graphics Inc., founded in 1982 by Jim Clark, was once the only game in town for the computer graphics industry. This isn't to say there weren't other types of computers that performed graphics tasks such as the Commodore Amiga, or even the short lived Tandy Color Computer. But if you were truly serious about computer graphics in the 80's and into the early 90's, Silicon Graphics, Inc. was the only way to go. And you'd better have lots of gold pieces in your little change purse, because going "SGI" was a major investment.

Silicon Graphics did (and still does) have other types of customers besides the Hollywood set. But the entertainment industry really pushed the envelope in CG, and plus, Hollywood made great grist for the public relations' mill. Stories circulated about the latest big-budget Hollywood film, and how Silicon Graphics was key to the effects work. It was a perfect synergy. With Silicon Graphics as the only maker of computer graphics workstations for high-end visual effects and 3D software, they could charge any price they wanted. And they did. Anyone who tried back then to buy an external CD-ROM drive for their SGI box found it could cost more than $1300.

There were two large influences on the proliferation of 3D on the desktop, and SGI can't take credit for either of them. The first was a little company in Topeka, Kansas, named NewTek. At the time (mid to late 1980's), NewTek was selling its Video Toaster video editing system, which was delivered on an Amiga 2000 computer. The unit could not only do things like edit video and provide transitions, users also found that it contained a little extra that seemed to be thrown in as almost an afterthought—a full fledged 3D program, which would become LightWave 3D. LightWave is perhaps the 3D software package most responsible for where we are in 3D on the desktop today, as its rapid growth, increased power, and functionality made the prices of the high-end 3D software on SGIs come down dramatically.

This started a price war in the 3D software space that, to this day, has not abated. The other thing that brought Silicon Graphics down as the king of the hill in CG was the NT workstation. At SIGGRAPH '94 in Orlando, FL, Intergraph was the only NT workstation vendor. They occupied a nondescript, and virtually ignored, booth in the back of the conference hall. Although in use for a while by architects and industrial designers using Intergraph MicroStation software, the CG community at SIGGRAPH largely laughed them off as toys, or worse.

Fast-forward six years in time, and the NT workstation is the de facto standard in the world of 3D graphics. Even many Mac diehards (myself included) will agree that powerful 3D workstations in the PC world offer more choice, and faster graphics. The gap is narrowing, but the NT machines have an extremely strong lead. Now, the graphics card in my off-the-shelf clone PC has more power than an entire SGI workstation from five years ago. Silicon Graphics boxes that had cost $50,000 are now being turned into speaker enclosures and cappuccino makers. SGI really missed the boat on the whole PC graphics revolution, and the tides are threatening to wash the company to sea for good.

So what can SGI do to turn it around? Apple did it, so why can't SGI? In a bold move to corner more of the high-end NT workstation market, SGI recently bought Intergraph's Computer Systems division. Noted for their "Z" series of NT workstations, SGI made the announcement at SIGGRAPH 2000 on the morning the show floor opened. Seen around the floor were the big black behemoths we've come to expect, but wearing the SGI logo! An editor at a tech pub likened it to the Titanic, with SGI being the doomed ship. Except, when they see the iceberg, they turn, only to purposely smack into another ship and sink both of them.

SGI then took their sweet time putting any information online. More than a month passed before these machines even went up for sale on the SGI site.

SGI has also made many moves into the Linux space as of late, and have acknowledged that they will be phasing out IRIX (SGI's variant of UNIX) over time. Linux is great for a lot of things, but one place it still lags behind is in application support. This is changing, but it's an uphill battle, and one I am not sure SGI has the strength to fight.

Rick Belluzzo, the successor to long-time CEO Ed McCracken who was with SGI since 1984, threw the company into the NT ring with the Visual Workstation, which caused a loud, painful thud heard around the world. While on paper the system was a design marvel, in reality nothing worked as advertised. Not only that, SGI engineers had to slog through the spaghetti of code that is Windows NT, and create a version made custom for the unit. It never fully worked, and problems plagued the computers from the start. Belluzzo is now an executive at Microsoft, where I am quite sure he can wreak no more damage than anyone else at the Redmond company.

Now the reigns are in the hands of Bob Bishop, one of SGI's largest shareholders. Version 2.0 of the renamed Visual PC have been met with lukewarm receptions, and all but SGI's largest clients like ILM, Digital Domain, and Pixar have pretty much jumped off the SGI bandwagon. While SGI does own , and Maya is the high-end standard for 3D, the company has been bleeding red ink for the last few years, and it looks like nothing can save them, right?

SGI actually did get it right once, but they failed to follow through. The failure was the Visual Workstation. But the vision part, they got right. SGI's laudable goal was to create a true media super computer, along with video I/O, a fast bus, and fast graphics subsystem. The specs on these NT units were enough to make most 3D artists drool, and many people pre-ordered the units on SGI's claims alone. Although they failed miserably, the world still needs a workstation built specifically for the CG and 3D artists of the world, and maybe the third time's the charm for SGI to make good on this promise.

The first Visual Workstations were too proprietary and not "stock" enough. The second time around, they were little more than clones with SGI skins. This time, the company should focus on what makes the ZX-10 workstations they bought from Intergraph so good, and extend upon that to create a true workstation for the CG power user.

The unit, which I have called The Alchemist, would be a true content creation powerhouse. There would only be one model to streamline manufacturing, but would come with many built-to-order options. There would be no low-end unit because they're low margin, and low-end machines have never been SGI's core competency anyway. The units would all be dual capable, have processors at least in the 1.5GHz range, and come with support for three displays right out of the box—two computer monitors for dual screen work and an NTSC monitor because, of course, the unit would have a fully functional, FireWire based video I/O system. The graphics could be Nvidia based, or buyers would have the option of something a little more powerful, like the 3Dlabs Wildcat. The unit would come with a CD/DVD-ROM and a SuperDrive, making the unit very media friendly. The box would have a Zip drive instead of a floppy, and a solid sound card; none of this Creative SoundBlaster stuff. The hard drives would be striped into a RAID; about 100GB should do it.

This would make for a more expensive unit than a Dell or a Gateway, but if SGI could deliver a unit like this at a decent price point while still having reasonable profit, CG and 3D artists would flock to something so customized to their needs. SGI may be on its last leg, but it still has a card or two to play. I just hope they don't screw it up, and I can't see into the future right now because my crystal ball is in the shop.

Swami Rendalotsa is the online mystic for 3Dgate and pines for the possibility that SGI can pull an Apple-esque style turnaround.