HP goes up against SGI with new visual systems

Hewlett-Packard Co. this week introduces a high-end 3-D graphics system that with its ability to generate photo-realistic images in real time will take on the largest systems available from Silicon Graphics Inc. the company said.

Visualize PxFl - which HP is positioning to compete with SGI's Onyx2 InfiniteReality systems - is based on the massively parallel PixelFlow hardware architecture developed at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and licensed by HP featuring custom internal networking and processor technology.

According to HP Visualize PxFl is able to generate the kinds of realistic images created by software-based rendering techniques used in such movies as "Jurassic Park " but unlike time-intensive software rendering it can do so in real time. For example users will be able to create realistic transparent elements - such as a window - as well as represent bumps shadows and other surface textures in very realistic detail.

Putting a Plan Into Action

The new system which runs on the HP-UX Unix operating system stems from HP's "crusade to regain the graphics lead from SGI " said Jim Christensen director of technical computing programs for HP. Earlier this year the company introduced a toolkit for large-model rendering called DirectModel and later this year will unveil a new graphics accelerator.

HP will deliver the first prototype systems in September with a full rollout in January. Pricing begins at around $100 000 with HP custom-configuring systems for each customer.

The primary market for Visualize PxFl is virtual prototyping said Doug Schiff marketing manager for HP's Chapel Hill graphics lab.

The Defense Department like many manufacturers wants the ability to prototype large designs on a computer before investing in expensive full-scale models particularly in weapons systems design.

HP also foresees government research centers hooking up the graphics system to HP's Convex supercomputers to visualize very complex data. "The best way to look at the results of supercomputers is with graphics not by looking at [raw] numbers] " Schiff said.

In part the power of Visualize PxFl comes from its massively parallel architecture that uses a one-pixel processor to process one polygon or a group of polygons. A single Visualize PxFl chassis contains up to 18 PA-8000 64-bit reduced instruction-set computing chip with as many as 73 000 pixel processors on a single processor. With this architecture according to HP performance improves linearly as users add more processing power.

Additionally Visualize PxFl saves processing time through what is called deferred decomposition. Given a data set the system figures which pixels actually will be visible in the final image and then processes the shading and coloring for those pixels only.

For example in generating a side-view image of a tank the computer will generate pixels for only the surface area that will be visible from that perspective. Other systems analysts said will actually generate all the pixels only to have a large portion never show.

All told the Visualize PxFl processes between 10 million and 100 million polygons per second by coupling multiple chassis the company said.

"It's a quantum leap" over existing technology said Joel Orr president of Orr Associates a consulting firm based in Chesapeake Va. that specializes in automation engineering. With the PixelFlow architecture "they seem to have made some serious engineering breakthroughs and have found ways to squeeze more performance out of existing hardware " Orr said.

Visualize PxFl is based on the OpenGL standard for graphics technology but includes several extensions or enhancements to support the new architecture according to HP.

Greg Weiss a research analyst at D.H. Brown Port Chester N.Y. said users should expect to modify OpenGL-based applications before porting them to the HP technology.

Officials at SGI questioned HP's assertions about the performance of the Visualize PxFl system. In particular SGI believes that while the HP system may be able to process 1 million polygons in a tenth of a second the system architecture probably could not manage processing 100 million polygons in 1 second said Drew Henry director of marketing for SGI's Advanced Graphics Division. "We have serious questions about the legitimacy of that claim " Henry said. He said SGI's Onyx2 Reality Monster which has been shipping for six months is capable of processing in real time more than 80 million polygons per second which appears to meet most customers' demands he said.

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