SGI unveils Intel-centric technology road map

Silicon Graphics Inc., best known for its high-end and high-cost Unix servers and workstations, will revamp its product line to develop more affordable systems based on the Microsoft Corp. Windows NT operating system and Intel Corp. processors, the company announced last week.

SGI will port its Unix-based IRIX operating system to Intel's forthcoming 64-bit processors for use on servers and high-end workstations, but it will migrate the bulk of its 3-D technical workstation business to an Windows NT/Intel— or "Wintel''— platform beginning later this year.

As part of this shift, SGI is developing a product line called the Visual PC, which

will deliver high-performance graphics in mainstream PC workstations.

The company's goal is to deliver its trademark high-performance graphics and processing capability at much lower prices, but the company is not out "to create a Wintel clone machine," said Bo Ewald, executive vice president of computer systems.

Instead, said Anthony Robbins, vice president of the government area, Calverton, Md., the intent is "to take [$30,000] Octane-class workstation performance and deliver it in a $5,000 Visual PC box."

But SGI is "absolutely committed" to supporting and enhancing its installed Unix base as well as to designing new Windows NT workstations, Robbins said. The company also continues to be "the only vendor focused on the desktop through the supercomputer in the technical work space," he said.

SGI plans to organize its subsidiary, MIPS Technologies Inc., as an independent, publicly owned business. MIPS makes reduced instruction-set computer processors used not only in SGI systems but also in digital consumer products and embedded systems.

The company also announced plans to converge its four Cray Research Inc. supercomputer systems— Origin2000, J90, T90 and T3E— into two product lines that are based on

custom-designed and commercial Intel processors.

The new technology road map builds on a new technical and marketing alliance with Intel as well as an alliance with Microsoft, announced in December, that is focused on developing graphics technology for the Windows NT operating system.

The introduction of its first Visual PC later this year will boost its fortune by giving it access to the federal desktop market, Robbins said. SGI expects to see an increase in desktop sales of about 20 percent in the federal sector, he said. "The Visual PC will represent a far more significant percentage of our federal sales going forward than the Unix desktop does today."

Robbins expects the new product line to fill slots in Defense training and simulation programs and deployed applications as well as to play in multimedia, World Wide Web and low-end computer-aided design.

SGI's announcement was good news because it "hit all the right places," said Peter ffoulkes, a principal analyst with Dataquest Inc., San Jose, Calif. The company will focus on its core competencies but change its business model to fit the PC market, he said.

SGI faces great challenges, at least in the short term, analysts said. Above all, it has to preserve its installed base while moving to a new architecture, said Rich Partridge, a research analyst with D.H. Brown and Associates, Port Chester, N.Y.

Partridge expects a "rough road ahead," as the company executes its game plan. SGI will need to show success with the visual PC "to generate confidence and keep customers on the very high end," he said. There will be plenty of expenses, he predicted, but "if they come out with something strong in the NT workstation [market], it will help to fund the longer road map."

The company "really had no choice," Partridge said. It was trying to make "leading advances" in processor design, system architecture and operating environment, but "they bit off more than they could chew and have recognized that they can't continue to do that."

-- Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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