SGI debuts NT workstations

Silicon Graphics Inc., one of the industry's best known developers of high-end Unix-based visualization systems, this week will introduce its first line of Microsoft Corp. Windows NT-based workstations, which company officials say will raise the bar significantly on desktop computer performance.

The announcement of the SGI 320 and 540 workstations for the first time brings SGI's high-end graphics and visualization technologies into the Windows NT workstation market and defines SGI as a dual-platform vendor, company executives said.

"The real design goal [for the 320 and 540] was to be industry standard [while] not sacrificing performance and capability," said Cliff Apsey, director of product marketing for SGI's workstation division.

According to Apsey, the company leveraged the high-end graphics technology developed for its Unix-based Onyx and O2 workstation lines to design the new architecture for the Windows NT-based 320 and 540.

The Pentium II-based SGI 320 and the Xeon-based 540 share what SGI calls its new Integrated Visual Computing Architecture. According to Apsey, the design of the new architecture provides a high-speed data bus capable of providing six times the performance of Intel Corp.'s Advanced Graphics Port (AGP) and up to 10 times the performance of standard Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) bus.

Central to the new architecture is the introduction of three chips designed by SGI that power the graphics engine, display and various input/output options, including Ethernet, audio and Universal Serial Bus interfaces. In addition, SGI's graphics engine comes with the memory controller and the core logic built-in, requiring up to 10 million transistors - more dense than Intel Corp.'s Pentium II processor, Apsey said.

The SGI 320, which will be shipped in February, will be marketed as a mainstream, high-volume system, Apsey said. Options include up to two 450 MHz Pentium II processors, 128M of memory - expandable to 1G - and three PCI expansion slots.

The 540 workstation, which is planned for release in April, will feature up to four 450 MHz Pentium II Xeon processors, up to 2G of memory capacity and six PCI slots. According to Apsey, the 540 marks an industry first for combining such high graphics performance with a quad-processor system.

Jay Moore, a senior analyst of Windows NT workstations at the Boston-based research firm Aberdeen Group, said, "In the Intel world the price [of the new SGI systems] will be attractive and the performance will be exceptional." In fact, SGI's new NT workstations "will be among the best in the industry," Moore said.

David Witzel, a research analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. who specializes in workstations, agreed. He said with the 320 and 540, SGI likely will be the industry's top workstation for at least 12 to 24 months.

"[SGI] basically tried its best to stay away from developing a commodity PC," said Witzel. In addition, not only has SGI differentiated the 320 and 540 from the high-end PC market, but SGI also has differentiated itself from every other high-end workstation, he said.

Howard Levenson, SGI's business development manager for federal desktop systems, said the graphics-crunching capabilities and high bandwidth of these new systems make them perfect for the government GIS market or anybody who works regularly with maps and large images.

SGI also plans to target the modeling and simulation market, particularly the government's simulation-based acquisition sector, as well as digital content creators and the command, control, communications, computers and intelligence community, Levenson said.

The GSA price for the SGI 320 is $4,455. It includes one 450 MHz Pentium II processor, 256M of memory, a 6.4G hard drive and a 32X CD-ROM drive.

The GSA price for the SGI 540 is $5,813. It includes one 450 MHz Pentium II Xeon processor, 128M of memory, a 9.1G hard drive and a 32X CD-ROM drive.

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