SGI unwraps the Wintels

Two years in the making, Silicon Graphics Inc.'s new Visual Workstations finally debuted Monday, the company's first systems based on Microsoft Corp.

Two years in the making, Silicon Graphics Inc.'s new Visual Workstations finally debuted Monday, the company's first systems based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT and Intel Corp.'s microprocessors.

At a splashy event here in the Imax theater of the new San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation, company President, Chairman and CEO Rick Belluzzo demonstrated the systems and their capabilities, some of which have yet to be seen in Wintel workstations.

For example, through a proprietary (but compatible) graphics subsystem, the workstations can execute up to four smooth streams of video in real time. The subsystems also support more than 1.5GB of RAM.

SGI's own video, audio, graphics and networking are hardwired to the motherboard, which makes upgrades impossible unless the motherboard is replaced. There are six PCI slots into which users can add other cards if desired, but that renders the on-board components redundant. Although the systems themselves were the centrepiece of the announcement, Belluzzo and other SGI executives said that the day represented a fundamental shift in the company's business -- one that's more PC-centric, focused on manufacturing and distribution efficiencies, and dedicated to delivering products based on price/performance.

"It's not just products, but a full range of initiatives to complete our transition,'' Belluzzo said. The products, a dual-processor model 320 and quad-processor model 540, cost $3,395 (£2,070) and $5,995 (£3,655), respectively.

In terms of the market for digital content creation, SGI is competing mainly with Intergraph Computer Systems Corp, although Todd Johnson, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said the real competition is Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq Computer Corp.

While SGI will offer customers the ability to order the systems online, it expects about 70 percent of buyers will go through traditional reseller channels, mainly because of the one-on-one contact and ability to order service and support programs and systems simultaneously.

To help keep costs down, SGI will outsource manufacturing of the Visual Workstations to SCI Systems Inc., which is used by virtually every PC maker to build systems. Johnson, an 11-year SGI veteran, said the new attitude is among the most profound changes he's seen during his tenure, and it was sorely needed. "We were always hung up on what operating system and microprocessor we were using and lost sight of that the customer wants,'' he said.

SGI expects eventually to merge its O2 line with the Visual Workstation line, and indeed may bring the Octane line under the Visual Workstation moniker, Johnson said. While yesterday's announcement focused exclusively on workstations, SGI will also introduce an NT-based server, perhaps as early as this year. "Servers are a necessity. It's the next step in the story,'' Johnson said. He and other executives have said that SGI is not "religious" about operating system support. In addition to supporting NT as the primary server OS, the company will probably support Linux. "The initial message had to be clear that we're fully supporting NT. We're interested in Linux, but now wasn't the time to play that card,'' Johnson said.

Intel, through is investment in Linux provider Red Hat Software Inc., is making it easier for OEMs to support Linux.

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