Unix, NT vendors contend for 3-D workstation market

As federal users demand higher functionality at lower cost, vendors in the competitive 3-D workstation market are leapfrogging one another in a furious price/performance battle.

In 3-D, the top Unix workstation vendors are battling for market share, introducing new high-end 64-bit models and competing at the low- and midrange against PCs running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT. Industry executives see the 3-D market as having four main segments:

* The high-end market, dominated by Silicon Graphics Inc. and Evans & Sutherland Computer Corp.

* The midrange market, featuring the major workstation vendors: Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Digital Equipment Corp.

* The emerging Windows NT professional workstation market.

* The low-end market, with consumer PC graphics costing less than $1,000.

The rise of Windows NT may foreshadow a 3-D market shift, but Unix workstations will continue to dominate midrange and high-end floating-point applications for the next few years in the commercial and government markets, according to industry analysts.

64-Bit Advances

At the upper end of the 3-D workstation market, vendors are rolling out 64-bit products. HP and Intel Corp. are co-developing the 64-bit Merced, or PA, chip, which will heat up competition in the 3-D workstation market. HP recently announced an upgraded HP 9000 Series workstation that will incorporate a 64-bit chip, which is important to the 3-D market because much of graphics processing is done on the processor. HP also introduced a graphics accelerator card for the 3-D market, the Visualize 48XP, which is twice as fast as the current product, the Visualize 48.

Visualize 48XP will appear on HP's Army Workstation-I contract, according to Bill Dwyer, product marketing manager for HP's Federal Computer Operation, Cupertino, Calif.

While HP has made strides in 3-D, Digital and Silicon Graphics were actually the first to come out with 64-bit computing. Digital announced its 64-bit Alpha systems in 1992. Silicon Graphics, the second vendor to come out with a 64-bit workstatation, has now made IRIX a 64-bit operating system. Competitor Sun has 64-bit hardware, but its Solaris operating system and software are still 32-bit.

Digital's 64-bit Alpha products are available through such vehicles as the Army's Workstation-I, the Air Force's Workstations, NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement (SEWP) and the Defense Department's Integration for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence contract. Silicon Graphics' 64-bit products are available on IC4I, among other contract vehicles.

As for the newer entrants, HP's 64-bit products will land on such HP contracts as DOD's Supermini and the Navy's Tactical Advanced Computer-4 within the next 12 months.

Sometimes the leaps in 3-D technology do not necessarily coincide with the timing of users' needs. For example, when NASA had to decide on an upgrade, it chose the tried and true over the new.

"We knew that there was a 300 MHz or 350 MHz chip available, but we couldn't wait to learn more about it, so we went to the 250 MHz instead," said Michele Rienecker, an earth scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center's Laboratory for Hydrospheric Science. Rienecker uses a Digital Alpha 2100-A500MP four-CPU symmetric multiprocessing system for ocean circulation modeling and ocean data assimilation.

Despite the constant competition nipping at its heals, Silicon Graphics is considered the leader in the high end of the 3-D workstation market. "SGI is the leader with Indigo 2 and Impact [graphics systems], their bread and butter," said Peter Lowber, a senior analyst at Datapro, a Delran, N.J., market research firm. "SGI is also the leader in the high end with its Onyx system," he said.

Because the Indigo Impact system, priced at $22,000, can now do image generation, some users are migrating toward that rather than the higher-end InfiniteReality system, which costs $125,000. In general, however, Silicon Graphics saw its federal simulation revenue grow 40 percent over last year, said John Burwell, Silicon Graphics' visual simulation product manager.

Silicon Graphics sells to systems integrators who function as prime contractors. For example, the company is supplying systems to Lockheed Martin Corp., prime contractor on the Army's Advanced Distributed Simulation Technology contract, which is estimated at about $100 million over five years.

Silicon Graphics' recently completed acquisition of Cray Research Inc. could aid the graphics leader in the high-end market niche. But even there, the 3-D leader has competition. "Evans & Sutherland is a competitor for special-purpose hardware," Burwell acknowledged.

Beyond Virtual Reality

Evans & Sutherland, Salt Lake City, seems to have a stronghold on the highest-end image-generation market with its custom-designed ESIG 4500 Series.

The Evans & Sutherland systems go beyond virtual reality into the realm of reality reproduction, according to Rick Maule, vice president and general manager of the company's Graphics Systems Division. The company has poured 3-D introductions into the market over the past six months.

Those announcements include an agreement with MultiGen Inc. for joint development of a new modeling tool for real-time simulation databases, a deal with Mitsubishi Electronics America for 3-D graphics in the PC market, and a pact with Q-ZAR to develop virtual reality systems.

Evans & Sutherland has specialized in such areas as planetarium display systems, commercial and military pilot systems, and ground combat through such contracts as the Army's Close Combat Tactical Trainer, held by Lockheed Martin.

Evans & Sutherland also offers high-end graphic accelerator cards called Freedom to Sun, Digital, HP and IBM Corp. Freedom's users include the Air Force.

Windows NT's Impact

By most accounts, Windows NT is now encroaching on - and has created a new tier in - the midrange 3-D workstation market that was once the domain of Unix workstations.

A salient example of the move to Windows NT is the Army's Workstation-I program, captured last month by Digital and HP. Rather than solely using Unix, Workstation-I is a $594 million buy of Unix- and NT-based systems. Digital's AlphaStations run Unix and Windows NT natively.

Intergraph Corp., which offers a Windows NT and Intel-based 3-D line, could become one of the beneficiaries of the trend, if the company puts the appropriate distribution channels and business practices in place, Lowber said.

Moving in this direction, Intergraph last month released 3-D mechanical design and drafting software, Solid Edge, which the company claims is the first package to incorporate Object Linking and Embedding, a standard supported by Microsoft's Windows environments.

Solid Edge was added to the Navair/Spawar Computer-Aided Design-2 contract (Naval Air Systems Command and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command).

Tri-Star Computer, Tempe, Ariz., is also offering an Intel-based workstation running Windows NT. The company, which sells directly to numerous government agencies, tripled sales recently in the Pentium Pro 3-D workstation market for CAD, geographic information systems and virtual reality applications, said Steve Wood, government account representative with Tri-Star.

Federal users are interested in Windows NT for ease of use and integration of technical and office applications. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Federal Facilities Oversight has been using an Intergraph TD-Z 40 running Windows NT for several months and had used the company's earlier TD-5 model. The Windows NT platform allows the agency to run both a specialized environmental modeling application and such common office applications as word processing and spreadsheets.

"We can go back and forth between all those applications with remarkable ease," said Randy Earle, a GIS specialist with the Ohio EPA's Office of Federal Facilities Oversight. "We love NT."

Unix Activity Continues

Despite the encroachment of Windows NT, there is still continuing activity in the midrange 3-D Unix workstation market. In April, the Air Force awarded Sun Federal and Hughes Data Systems an estimated $950 million contract for five years to provide Sun SPARC-based workstations, software maintenance and support to the Air Force logistics community. In addition, Sun is working with IBM to port IBM's CADAM and Catia CAD/CAM software to all Sun platforms, said John Leahy, group manager for Sun Federal.

IBM sees the 3-D market dividing into low and high ends, with the middle disappearing. "Software implementations of the 3-D [application programming interfaces], such as OpenGL, are creating a new low- to midrange 3-D market," said Al Miller, IBM's reduced instruction-set computing marketing specialist for government/industry.

Instead of having all the graphics assist on the 3-D card, IBM uses the CPU to do the hardware assist through software implementation.


Gerber is a free-lance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.


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