HP guns for SGI in DOD market

Hewlett-Packard Co. this month launched an aggressive campaign aimed at unseating Silicon Graphics Inc. for leadership in the Unix-based graphics workstations market, specifically for military battlefield simulation.

The campaign comes as HP prepares to introduce this August its 64-bit operating system, HP-UX 11, on its Visualize line of graphics workstations, which the company claims will provide significant performance gains over competing systems from SGI. HP also doubled the rebate given to government customers who trade in their SGI systems for HP systems and cut prices for upgrading the graphics subsystems in older HP machines.

The military battlefield visualization and graphics workstation markets are heating up as the Defense Department turns to alternative, less costly methods of training its forces without having to actually deploy them to the field. Instead, DOD is relying on networks of sophisticated computers to provide military decision-makers and planners with realistic, simulated environments to practice their skills.

High-tech graphics workstations and simulation systems provide DOD with that capability by being able to process 3-D graphics, video and satellite images simultaneously and in real time.

With HP-UX 11, the HP Visualize C200 and C240 workstations "deliver quite a bit of additional graphics performance and provide us [with] the opportunity to attack SGI's installed base," said Glenn Sisson, HP's graphics product manager for Unix workstations.

Significant advancements in application tuning are allowing HP to provide users with applications that run "2.5 times faster than the best SGI has to offer," Sisson said. In addition, "we've been able to increase interactive graphics performance by a factor of three," he said.

HP said these enhancements create an opportunity to take away modeling and simulation business. "HP-UX 11 offers extra capacity to tackle the biggest problems around today," said Sean Tracy, HP's launch program manager. "We have an advantage over everybody right now. Sun [Microsystems Inc.] doesn't even have a 64-bit OS," he said.

The HP-UX 11 operating system was introduced by HP in 1997, and it supports the IA-64, Intel Corp.'s future 64-bit processor design. HP said HP-UX 11 will ease the migration of Unix systems from the company's reduced instruction-set computing chips to IA-64 because software applications developed with RISC-based HP-UX 11 systems also will run on Intel-based Unix systems.

Tracy said the new operating system accelerates application performance by 20 percent. "This is a pretty wild and dramatic improvement just by changing the operating system," he said.

However, according to Drew Henry, SGI's director of advanced graphics marketing, SGI is more than prepared to take on HP in the high-end battlefield simulation arena. HP is "not even on the radar screen of our customers," he said. "If you're going to be serious about battlefield simulation, then you have to be serious about dealing with high-resolution satellite images," and HP just is not there yet, Henry said.

Pricing for the Visualize C200 and C240 ranges from $17,000 to $22,000. Rebates for SGI customers trading in their SGI systems for similar HP machines range from $2,000 for HP's C200 workstations to $2,500 for the C240 workstations.

Peter Ffoulkes, principal analyst for advanced workstations and desktops for Dataquest, said there is no way to verify or dismiss HP's claims because of the lack of a common industry-standard benchmark for the high-end workstations.

"Where it starts to get a bit murky is when you go above the desktop level to the [SGI] Onyx-class machine," Ffoulkes said. SGI's Onyx platforms are the company's high-end visualization workstations based on a multiple-processor architecture that can handle simultaneous processing of graphics, imaging and video in real time.

"At this point," Ffoulkes said, "I think [HP is] throwing down the gauntlet and saying, 'Yeah, we can do it. Come talk to us.' "

Although HP may not be ready to provide Onyx-level performance, Ffoulkes said it is not beyond HP's capability. "If anyone is going to challenge SGI's hold on the high end of the market, it's going to be HP."

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