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Silicon Graphics

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Original Cube Logo

SGI (Silicon Graphics, Inc.) began as a maker of graphics display terminals in 1982. It was founded by Jim Clark and Abbey Silverstone. The initial products were based on Jim Clark's 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. On 8 May 2006, SGI filed for Chapter 11, Title 11, United States Code Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from which it emerged on 17 October[1]. SGI's former headquarters are now home to Google.


SGI's products, 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.


Dr. James H. Clark left his position as an electrical engineering associate professor at Stanford University to found SGI in 1982 along with Abbey Silverstone and a cadre of Stanford graduate students including Kurt Akeley, Tom Davis, Rocky Rhodes, Marc Hannah, and Herb Kuta. Mark Grossman joined them 2 months later. The Mayfield Group supplied the initial venture funding.

First generation products

The first IRIS 1000-series machines (IRIS standing for "Integrated Raster Imaging System") were designed to be connected to a DEC VAX computer as a graphics terminal, handling only the actual display. These were based on the Motorola 68000 microprocessor, with a motherboard design related to that of the Sun-1. After that, SGI began using the UNIX System V operating system to power the machine. Their height was reached with the IRIS 3130, a complete UNIX workstation using the Motorola 68020 with an attached Weitek math coprocessor.

The 3130 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 Ethernet, it could be the centerpiece of an animation operation.

RISC era

With the introduction of the IRIS 4D series, SGI switched over to using the MIPS RISC microprocessor architecture. 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 produced a broad range of MIPS-based workstations and servers during the 1990s, running SGI's version of UNIX System V, now called IRIX. These included the massive Onyx visualization systems, 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.

In 1992, MIPS released the first 64-bit MIPS microprocessor, the R4000, which was the first commercially released 64-bit RISC microprocessor (a market soon joined by Digital's Alpha chip and others). IRIX 6.2 was the first fully 64-bit IRIX release, including 64-bit pointers.

In August 2006, SGI announced the End Of Production for MIPS/IRIX systems. As of 29 December 2006, MIPS IRIX products will no longer be generally available from SGI.

IrisGL and OpenGL

Up until the second generation Onyx Reality Engine machines, SGI offered access to their high performance 3D graphics subsystems through a proprietary API known as 'Iris Graphics Language' (IrisGL). As more features were added over the years, IrisGL became harder to maintain and cumbersome to use. In 1992, SGI decided to clean up and reform IrisGL and made the bold move of allowing the resulting OpenGL API to be cheaply licensed by SGI's competitors --- and yet further to set up an industry-wide consortium to maintain the OpenGL standard (the OpenGL Architecture Review Board).

This meant for the first time that fast, efficient, cross-platform graphics programs could be written.

To this day, OpenGL remains the only real-time 3D graphics standard to be portable across a variety of operating systems. Its main competitor ('Direct3D' from Microsoft) runs only on MS Windows-based machines.

ACE Consortium

SGI was part of the early-90s Advanced Computing Environment initiative with twenty others, including Compaq, Digital Equipment Corporation, MIPS Computer Systems, Groupe Bull, Siemens AG, NEC Corporation, NetPower, Microsoft and Santa Cruz Operation to introduce workstations based on the MIPS architecture and capable of running Windows NT and SCO UNIX. The group produced the Advanced RISC Computing or ARC specification. The consortium fell apart, apparently for political rather than technical reasons.

Entertainment Industry

SGI's have appeared in many Hollywood movies.

An SGI computer with the FSN three-dimensional file system navigator appeared in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. One trademark of this scene is Lex's line, "This is a Unix system. I know this."

In the movie Twister, the heroes can be seen using an SGI laptop. It is in fact a working SGI, with a motherboard similar to that of the Indy. SGI made thirty or so in the early 90s, making the laptop quite a rarity. Given the power-hungry nature of the MIPS chip, not to mention what such a device would have cost in a time when an Apple PowerBook was considered expensive, the laptop was not a venture SGI seemed to be interested in taking. SGI Laptop on Twister

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 other computer graphics companies like ATI Technologies and NVIDIA, contributing to the PC 3D graphics revolution.

Name and logo changes

SGI's "Acronym" logo

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 more than simply a graphics company, although the legal name of the company remained unchanged. At the same time in 1999, 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. The new logo was a proprietary typeface called "SGI", created by branding and design consulting firm Landor Associates, in collaboration with designer Joe Stitzlein.

The cube logo was later readopted by SGI. Currently both logos are in use.

Alias, Wavefront, Cray and Intergraph 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. On October 4, 2005, Autodesk, Inc. (NASDAQ: ADSK) announced that it signed a definitive agreement to acquire Alias for $182 million in cash.

In February 1996, SGI purchased the well-known supercomputer manufacturer Cray Research for $740 million[2], and began to use marketing names such as "CrayLink" for (SGI-developed) technology integrated into the SGI server line. Three months later, it sold the SPARC/Solaris part of the Cray business to Sun Microsystems for an undisclosed amount (widely assumed to be $50 million). SGI sold most of the remaining Cray business and the Cray brand to Tera Computer Company on March 31, 2000 for $35 million plus one million shares[3]. SGI also distributed its remaining interest in MIPS Technologies through a spin-off effective June 20, 2000.

In September 2000, SGI acquired the Zx10 series of Windows workstations and servers from Intergraph Computer Systems. These models were rebadged as SGI systems, but discontinued in June 2001.

Late 1990s and recent developments

Another attempt by SGI in the late 1990s to introduce its own family of Intel-based workstations running Windows NT (see also SGI Visual Workstation) proved to be a financial disaster, and shook customer confidence in SGI's commitment to its own MIPS-based line.

SGI has also been a big booster of Free Software, supporting several projects (such as Linux and Samba) and providing some previously proprietary code (such as XFS) to the free software world.

Switch to Itanium

In 1998, SGI announced that future generations of their machines would be based not on their own MIPS processors, but the new "super-chip" from Intel, the Itanium. Funding for their own high-end processors was constrained, and it was planned that the R10000 would be the last MIPS mainstream processor. MIPS would focus entirely on the embedded market, where they were having some success, and SGI would no longer have to fund development of a CPU that, since the failure of ARC, found use only in their own machines.

This plan quickly went awry. As early as 1999 it was clear the Itanium was going to be delivered very late, and then that it would have nowhere near the performance originally expected. As the production delays increased, MIPS' existing R10000-based machines grew increasingly uncompetitive. Eventually they were forced to introduce faster MIPS processors, the R12000, R14000 and R16000, which were used in a series of models from 2002 onwards, and continue to be sold to this day.

SGI's first Itanium-based system was the short-lived SGI 750 workstation, launched in 2001. SGI's MIPS-based system were not to be superseded until the launch of the Itanium 2-based Altix servers and Prism workstations some time later. Unlike the MIPS-based systems, these models use GNU/Linux (SuSE Linux Enterprise Server with SGI enhancements) as their operating system instead of IRIX. SGI use Transitive's QuickTransit software to allow their old MIPS/IRIX applications run (in emulation) on the new Itanium/Linux platform.

In the server space the Itanium 2-based lineup, the Altix, appears to have almost replaced the MIPS-based product line, the latter being de-emphasized on the SGI web site. In the workstation space, the switch to Itanium appears to have been a complete failure.

By one measure, the Itanium 2-based Altix computer is the most powerful computer in the world as of 2006. If a "computer" is defined as a collection of hardware running under a single instance an operating system, then the Altix, with 512 Itanium processors running under a single instance of Linux, is unsurpassed. A cluster of 20 machines is in eighth place in the "top 500" supercomputer list. All of the faster supercomputers are clusters, but none of them has as many FLOPS/machine. However, The list demonstrates that supercomputers are moving toward massive clusters of machines that are individually less capable. SGI has acknowledged this and is moving away from the "massive NUMA" model towards efficient clusters.

Switch to Xeon

Although SGI continues to manufacture and market the Itanium machines, their most recent machines, the Altix XE series, are based on the Intel Xeon processor. The first XE systems were relatively low-end machines, but the latest XE systems are more capable than the Itanium machines by some measures (e.g., power consumption in FLOP/W, density in FLOP/m3, cost/FLOP) The XE1200 and XE1300 servers use a cluster architecture. This is a departure from the pure NUMA architectures of the earlier Itanium and MIPS servers.


The addition of 3D graphic capabilities to the peecee and the ability of clusters of Linux or *BSD-based PC's to take on many of the tasks of larger SGI servers has eaten into SGI's core markets. The porting of Maya to Linux, the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows has further eroded the low end of SGI's product line.

In addition, SGI's premature announcement of its MIPS-to-Itanium architecture migration (still uncompleted, as of 2006, though they did announce the end of MIPS/IRIX products by December) and its abortive ventures into IA-32 architecture systems (the Visual Workstation line, the ex-Intergraph Zx10 range and the SGI 1000-series Linux servers) damaged the company's credibility in the market.

In November 2005, SGI announced that they had been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange because their common stock had fallen below the minimum share price for listing on the exchange. SGI's market capitalization has dwindled from a peak of over seven billion dollars in 1995 to just $120 million at the time of their delisting. In February 2006, the company announced that it may run out of cash by the end of the year, forcing a sale of the company or even bankruptcy. [4]

On 8 May 2006, it was announced that SGI had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. [5] On 17 October 2006, it was announced that SGI had emerged from Chapter 11 protection [6] and that the company's symbol was canceled. SGI stock is now traded under the symbol SGIC. SGID common stockholders did not receive any of the new stock and are left with worthless shares.[7] The company will not speak to SGID shareholders and refers them to a recorded message.

Working On Returning to Profitability

In Spring 2006, SGI engaged the services of Alix Partners, to advise it on returning the firm to profitability.

Since the hiring of Alix Partners, SGI has received a new line of credit, been delisted as expected and continued to build its business as evidenced by the press releases on the SGI Web Site and other sources.

A preliminary proxy filed with the SEC indicates that SGI Stockholders will consider giving the SGI Board of Directors authority to implement a reverse split of the common shares of stock at an official shareholders meeting anticipated in March 2006. If approved by stockholders, the board would, at its discretion, determine if such a split is necessary and would determine the time of same.

In early 2006, SGI selected Mr. Dennis McKenna to be the new SGI CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors. McKenna succeeds SGI CEO and Chairman Robert Bishop. Mr. Bishop was named Vice President of SGI and the Board of Directors.

On 8 May 2006, SGI announced that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for itself and U.S. subsidiaries as part of a plan to reduce debt by $250 million. Two days later, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved SGI's "first day motions" and approved its use of a $70 million financing facility provided by a group of its bondholders. Foreign subsidiaries are unaffected.

In a press release on 6th September 2006, SGI announced the end of development for both the MIPS/IRIX line and the IRIX operating system. Production will end on 29th December 2006 and the last orders will be fulfilled by March 2007. Support for these products will end no sooner than December 2013.

User base and core market

Conventional wisdom holds that SGI's core market has traditionally been Hollywood visual 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. The rise of cheap, yet powerful workstations running the open source operating system Linux has effectively pushed SGI out of the visual effects industry in all but the most niche markets as studios adopted the newer, cheaper technology.

High-end Server market

In recent years, SGI has continued to enhance its line of servers (of which the higher-end models are actually 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 CC-NUMA: Cache-coherent Non-uniform memory access. In an SN system, processors, memory, and a bus- and memory-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 scalability of SN systems is a result of the cache-coherence of its distributed shared memory. This allows the combined memory of all the nodes to be accessed under a single OS image using standard shared-memory synchronization methods. This makes an SN system far easier to program and able to achieve a higher sustained vs peak performance ratio than non-cache-coherent systems like conventional clusters or massively parallel computers which require applications code to be written (or re-written) to do explicit message-passing communication between their nodes.

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, 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. The NASA Supercomputer "Columbia" is an Altix cluster of 20, 512-processor computers running Linux.

In April 2004, SGI announced the selling of Alias for approx $57 million. Press release.

In October 2004, SGI broke the world's supercomputer speed record with Columbia, a supercomputer built for NASA's Ames Research Center. A cluster of 20 Altix supercomputers with a total of 10,240 Intel Itanium 2 processors, the system achieved sustained performance of 42.7 trillion floating-point calculations per second (teraflops), easily topping Japan's famed Earth Simulator, rated at 35.86 teraflops. Columbia's reign would be a short one: about a week later, IBM's upgraded Blue Gene/L clocked in at 70.7 teraflops. As of November 2005, Columbia ranked No. 4, behind Blue Gene/L (now achieving 280.6 teraflops), a smaller Blue Gene, and ASC Purple, all built by IBM.

Product line

Current products

MIPS-based systems (End of production: December 2006)

Itanium-/Itanium 2-based systems

  • Altix 450 mid-range server
  • Altix 4000 high-end server

Intel EM64T-based systems

  • Altix XE210 server
  • Altix XE240 server
  • Altix XE1200 cluster
  • Altix XE1300 cluster

Storage systems

  • InfiniteStorage 10000
  • InfiniteStorage 6700
  • InfiniteStorage 4500
  • InfiniteStorage 4000
  • InfiniteStorage 350
  • InfiniteStorage 220
  • InfiniteStorage 120
  • InfiniteStorage RM610/RM660

Past products

These are no longer being manufactured. SGI still sells some of them as "remarketed" (i.e., used) products.

Motorola 68k-based systems

  • IRIS 1000 series diskless graphics terminals
  • IRIS 2000 series workstations
  • IRIS 3000 series workstations

MIPS-based systems


Intel IA-32-based systems

Itanium-/Itanium 2-based systems

Storage systems

  • Total Performance 9500
  • Total Performance 9400
  • Total Performance 9300
  • Total Performance 9100
  • Total Performance 900
  • Origin Vault
  • Challenge RAID
  • Challenge S Vault

See also

External links

General Unofficial SGI Information