Geeklust for SGIs

One of my co-workers was wondering why our monitoring system was alerting about a stock. Turns out, it was just Nortel, who is in the process of disappearing. And I taunted her and reduced her to tears about all of the cool tech companies that are no more.

Like SGI. It’s gone. Rackable picked them up and adopted the name. And I had some notes in my private diary about my SGI lust that I figured I’d post.

I think the first time I’d heard of them was somewhere in the very early 90s, in BYTE magazine. The first machine I’d ever heard of was the SGI Crimson. It was awesome looking, as a big fancy red and gray cube in advertisements.

Convergence started hitting in 1993. Cyberpunk had just been given the coup de grace because the future it was predicting was starting to happen. Wired magazine was in the newsstands. If you knew how, you could get Internet access. I had a 14.4 modem that I figured would be the last modem I’d buy before ISDN took over. And the SGI Indy was the new thing, offering workstation hardware at the sort of price that you used to be able to buy a high-end Mac or PC for.

Now, Apple represented a cool computer back then in ways that the PC couldn’t match. They had just released their AV-series Quadras. But the Indy was presented as being even cooler than the Mac. Almost an impossible thing, but then, Steve Jobs was out of Apple at the time.

At the same time, SGI had put a whole lot of effort into their X11-based GUI. In later years, after playing with it, I’d realized that they’d gotten awfully close to a usable interface for a trained professional with a network administrator there doing network administration, it probably wasn’t perfect for an end-user. But it had built-in ISDN, a video camera, and video input and a lot of CPU power.

So I’d always kind of wanted one.

SGI never managed to grab enough marketshare with the Indy. The Nintendo 64 came out in 1996 and was largely designed by SGI.

By the time I’d got to school, 3dfx was out. And the comparison was largely against an SGI. The Voodoo would let you do stuff that took a RealityEngine. The Indys were dated at that point.

In 2000, I was spending time getting used to SGI hardware. I took a class where we used a cluster of SGI Indigo2 and O2 machines (with one Octane in the back that we couldn’t really use) and my summer job had me working with an SGI Indigo2 on my desk.

Either way, this was about the end of the line for SGI, even though nobody knew it at the time. SGI had failed at going down to the low-end. SGI had been running Windows NT on some of their machines internally for quite some time, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Eventually, they released the first Visual Workstations which were based on their high-end architectural designs but designed around Intel processors and Windows NT. They had a lot of unique capabilities, including UMA with tons of bandwidth, but since you could build a PC that was almost as good with off-the-shelf parts for much less, they weren’t a big hit. Eventually, Intergraph sold their PC lineup to SGI and, because the first Visual Workstations weren’t a hit, all they became was very expensive Windows machines that you could get from anywhere.

The problem is that nVidia cards, and later ATI cards, were just too damn good. Even for high-end stuff. And, though I’ve always been fond of the RISC architecture, the clunky x86 architecture works well enough.

Still, in the interests of retrocomputing and owning a piece of awesome for myself, I kinda do want my own SGI box. If I find somebody who wants to offload their old SGI, I might be able to get away with it. I’d gladly toss a bunch of more modern but not-in-use technology to make room for it. :)