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Guest Opinion : The SGI We Really Need

How Irix could change everything for creative professionals By Paulo de Andrade
SGI is one of my favorite companies. Their computers have fueled the entertainment industry for years, and they have played a major role in the development of the computer graphics industry that we have today. Unfortunately, SGI's presence at Siggraph 2001 was, to put it mildly, "interesting." They were showing their brand new O2+ workstation, a powerhouse that would have made a lot of people drool a decade ago. At the time, this 350 MHz RM7000ATM processor-based workstation with 256 MB SDRAM, great graphics and a starting price of "only" $7,495 would have prompted people to sell their cars, mortgage their homes and even divorce their spouses just to get one.

These days, however, things have changed. When one can purchase a much faster 1.4 GHz Athlon-based workstation with all the goodies, including some amazing professional graphics cards and double the memory (DDR, of course) for less than a third of that price, does it make you wonder whether SGI is living in the past? What about the latest dual-processor G4 with a DVD burner for less than half?

"What's the point?" This is the reply I heard from several people, including those from companies responsible for the leading-edge software that ran exclusively on SGIs a few years ago, when inquired about their thoughts on the new O2+. These companies were forced to port their software to less capable operating systems just so that users could purchase cheaper, faster hardware. It wasn't a task most were looking forward to, especially when their programs ran so well under IRIX, SGI's rock-solid UNIX-based operating system. But they all knew that SGI would not be able to keep up with the frenetic PC hardware development pace, and those whose software didn't run on PCs wouldn't stand a chance. The desktop workstation hardware war that followed was bloody and brief, and it changed the industry forever.

One of the vendors at this year's Siggraph had its software running both on an Octane2 workstation and a PC. When the artist started to give me a demo, we sat in front of the SGI system, and the first thing he did was apologize for the slow performance of the workstation. He said, "I'll have to give you this demo on this machine that nobody likes anymore." Hearing that really hurt. His argument was that PCs are so much faster these days that people don't have the patience to use SGI desktop workstations. Interestingly enough, after a few minutes we ended up moving to the nearby PC desk, and the demo continued from there. The same high-end software ran faster on hardware that you can purchase at the local discount computer superstore.

The entertainment industry customers most likely to purchase SGI's new entry-level machine are the big studios, which have been SGI-based for years. And they may do it not because of the machine specs, but because of its operating system. Many of these studios had jumped at Windows-based workstations a few years ago because of the amazing price-performance ratio. Seeing their desktop workstation market quickly erode, SGI jumped into the bandwagon and released their own Windows-based machines. It proved to be a big mistake. Studios soon discovered that Windows wasn't good enough for a true production environment, and the maintenance and integration costs quickly ate up all the savings. Because these large studios depend on the unbeatable high-end SGI servers and multi-processor supercomputers, the most logical way to achieve better integration in their workflow was to try an operating system that would easily integrate with IRIX. So they urged software companies to port their applications to Linux. And so they did. But Linux turned out to be another problem. Lack of drivers and a confusing number of GUI flavors, among other things, have kept Linux from achieving the success everyone envisioned. So now these big studios have been looking at the other major Unix-based workstation manufacturer?Sun. And Sun has been responding very aggressively with high-performance, low-priced workstations.

As this workstation drama has been unfolding, SGI has released and dropped their Windows-based workstation line twice. IRIX seems to be definitely the way to go, but is the O2+ the answer? If SGI can't compete anymore in terms of workstation-level hardware in a market filled with low-cost, very powerful Intel- and AMD-based machines, then why not capitalize on the best asset they have?

That would be IRIX, of course.

If SGI ported IRIX to these processors and even to the Mac, it would be a solution that would please everyone. Studios would have access to inexpensive hardware that would seamlessly integrate with their existing SGI high-end environment. Small and medium-sized facilities would have access to a true operating system, devoid of constant crashes and capable of handling multiple processors and complex networks. And since most high-end programs already run on IRIX anyway, software developers wouldn't have to endure yet another port. Creative computer users would finally be able to kiss Windows goodbye and leave it to the home users and corporate types that it is designed for in the first place. Worst case, have dual-boot systems so that we could run those Windows-exclusive applications. But I am sure that if SGI made IRIX available to PCs and Macs, every single important software manufacturer would gladly port their non-IRIX applications to it.

Apple and Microsoft know that the future of operating systems lies on UNIX. But while these companies are basically starting from scratch developing their new UNIX-based OSes, SGI has had IRIX for years. Since its inception in 1982, SGI and its customers have relied on the power and stability of IRIX to conduct their critical businesses. IRIX has been instrumental in enabling SGI to deliver generations of leading-edge, high-performance computers, and it enabled studios to create very effective production environments. IRIX is so mature that its current version, 6.5, is already in its thirteenth intermediate release.

IRIX has been used in the production of virtually every single major motion picture and it is the backbone of the effects industry. The development has already been made, and the OS has proven it's might; all we need is a simple port.

How much would you pay to purchase IRIX as an optional OS for your PC or Mac? Is it worth as much as a high-end graphics card to have a computer that doesn't crash? To me it definitely is. Would you pay the same for IRIX as you'd pay for Windows 2000 and yet have a much more secure OS? Would you pay more?

If you like the concept of having IRIX ported to your computer, let SGI know about it. Who knows? Maybe if enough people ask, they'll realize that selling OSes may be the way to go. It is, after all, an asset that they already have and it's been paid for. Instead of spending millions designing, developing and manufacturing new desktop hardware that doesn't stand a chance in the current market, they could focus on the OS side of the business. There's a lot of money in it, as Microsoft very well knows. The hard costs, after the port, are just a CD, a box and possibly a printed manual. The rest is profit.

If SGI keeps manufacturing their high-end computers and lets the desktop workstation market run on PCs and Macs based on IRIX, they may once again dominate the desktop workstation market. It will just be in a different way. As an SGI fan, I would love to see that happen. Wouldn't you?

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