Silicon Graphics: Feeling the Pressure

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2002-11-01 Print this article Print

Dossier: Long the multimedia market leader, SGI is feeling the pinch as longtime entertainment customers turn to cheaper Linux systems.

Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) has owned the market for systems to create computer-intensive simulations, animations, and 3-D visualizations. Its customers include major automotive and aerospace companies, and the company can lay claim to more than a dozen Oscar nominations for contributions to Shrek, Jurassic Park and other hits.

However, longtime customers in the entertainment business are abandoning the company's machines in favor of much cheaper—and they say faster—Linux boxes. While Silicon Graphics is still very much a mainstay with automotive manufacturers for vehicle design and crash simulations, some, like General Motors, are experimenting with competing systems. For one, GM signed a deal in August to purchase 10 IBM p690 32-processor servers, also known by the name Regatta, to run virtual crash simulations.

Tippett Studios, a production house, has used Silicon Graphics machines since 1983 for movie magic in productions such as Starship Troopers. Technology Director Christian Rice says the studio is increasingly moving away from SGI workstations to Linux boxes.

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Rice says the switch has nothing to do with Tippett's relationship with SGI or its ongoing support. He rates both as "gold." It's more a matter of speed and economics. A custom Linux box built by a local shop costs about $2,500, whereas a comparable SGI Octane machine goes for about $25,000. Rice adds the Linux boxes are as much as 35% faster.

The switch comes with trade-offs. Linux workstations are more prone to crashes, and lack support for the rich development tools built for SGI machines. "But when you're not running a life-and-death operation, you can account for the crashes and still come out way ahead [with Linux]," he says.

In other areas, Silicon Graphics continues to have strong support. The BP Center for Visualization at the University of Colorado at Boulder uses an SGI Onyx 3800 supercomputer to drive a virtual reality center used by oil and gas companies and other industries to create 3-D images of seismic data and geology patterns. Executive Director Geoffrey Dorn says the system has to be powerful enough to track a user's head and hand movements to a millimeter. "To drive it, you need the most powerful graphics machine in the world, and SGI has it," he says.

Space Imaging, a Denver company that captures and sells images of Earth from space, also has based its business on SGI technology. Brian Leslie, director of international ground station development and deployment, says SGI's ongoing support is part of the reason. "It's been excellent," he says. "They understand our needs and have been closely involved in our projects."

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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