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Silicon Graphics

Silicon Graphics, Incorporated, commonly called SGI, began as a maker of graphics display terminals in 1982. It was founded by Jim Clark based on his 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.

The first machines were designed to be connected to a DEC VAX computer as a terminal, handling only the actual display. After that, SGI began using Motorola 68000 microprocessors running the UNIX operating system to power the machine. Their height was reached with the SGI 3130, a complete UNIX workstation using the 68030 microprocessor with an attached Weitek (I think) math coproccessor.

The 3X30 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 10baseT ethernet it could be the centerpiece of an animation operation.

With the introduction of the 4D series, SGI switched over to using the MIPS RISC microprocessors. These machines were correspondingly more powerful, able to address more memory and 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 expanded these machines up to the massive Onyx supercomputers, 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, SGI released the first 64-bit MIPS microprocessor, the R4000, which was one of the first 64-bit microprocessors along with Digital's Alpha chip.

Now that inexpensive PCs are beginning to catch up in terms of graphics performance, SGI is concentrating on its high performance server capabilities, offering servers for digital video and the Web. Many SGI graphics engineers have left to work at newer companies, driving the PC 3D graphics revolution. 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 a more than simply a graphics company. The legal name of the company remains unchanged. SGI has evolved into a significant player in other fields such as high end web servers and high-performance computing.

In February 1996, SGI purchased Cray Research, and began to use marketing names such as "CrayLink" for (SGI developed) technology integrated into the SGI server line. SGI later sold part of the Cray product line to Tera Computer Company on March 31, 2000. SGI also distributed its remaining interest in MIPS Technologies, Inc through a spin-off effective June 20, 2000. Another purchase was AliasWavefront, makers of the Maya 3D software package.

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

The company has been drifting in recent years, since its high cost structure makes it tough to compete with cheaper alternatives. An attempt to introduce workstations running under Windows NT angered its true believer customers without generating significant interest among outsiders.

Those who use SGI computers tend to be fiercely loyal, but the companies that spend tens of thousands of dollars on them are rapidly losing patience. The porting of Maya to GNU/Linux and the Apple Macintosh is looking like a watershed in this development; there will soon be little reason to buy a $40,000 SGI machine when a $3,500 Macintosh would do.

Conventional wisdom holds that SGI's core market has traditionally been Hollywood special 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.

In recent years, SGI has continued to enhance its line of servers (some go so far as to call them 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 NUMA: non-uniform memory access. In an SN system, processors, memory, and a memory and bus 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 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 four to 256 processors, with 512- and 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 their third-generation SN system, SN-2, under the name Origin 3900. The Origin 3900 quadrupled the per-square-foot processor density of the SN-MIPS system, from 32 processors per rack up to 128 processors per rack.

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, SN-MIPS, and SN-2 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 with a distributed shared memory technology called Myrinet to form what SGI predictably termed "superclusters."

SGI Product Line

Current SGI products include:

Past SGI products include:

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