Silicon Graphics: Gone But Not Forgotten

You may have heard of SiliconGraphics, later known as Silicon Graphics, Inc, and then simply SGI, but few home users outside of an enthusiastic hobbyist community ever used its computers. That’s because SGI was dedicated to manufacturing high-performance workstations, software design, and supercomputers for professionals specializing in 3D graphics.

At its peak in the 1990s, Silicon Graphics had legendary status among 3D and graphic designers who leveraged the unique power of these workstations that were at cutting edge of visual computing.

The legacy of Silicon Graphics can still be seen in the Nintendo 64, which they helped develop, and several Hollywood movies, including Jurassic Park, Twister, Congo, Toy Story, and many others, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Silicon Graphics got its start in a day when most people did not even have a home computer. The year was 1982. James Clark left his job at Stanford University, where he was an associate professor of electrical engineering with the vision of creating powerful computers that could perform the complex computations required in 3D animation.

On his departure from Stanford, Clark took seven talented graduate students with him. Among them was Kurt Akeley, who engineered the frame buffers and processor subsystems in the first SGI IRIS terminals and the CAD systems used to develop them

He also created the RealityEngine for the Crimson and Onyx “visualization supercomputers” and was integral in the development of the OpenGL graphics specification.

David Brown, another Stanford alumnus and co-founder of SGI, had previously helped develop the SUN workstation over 10 years prior to the founding of Sun Microsystems. Brown created the “PM1” processor boards for the first SGI workstations. He later moved on to work for Digital Equipment (DEC) and then Sun Microsystems.

Another key player in the founding of Silicon Graphics was Charles Kuta. Having achieved his Masters in electronics and software engineering, Kuta joined Clark and helped design the Geometry Engine. The Geometry Engine managed 3D modeling primitives at the hardware level — the geometry pipelines that handled model space to screen space viewing transformations.

SGI released its first-generation IRIS systems (models 1000 and 1200) in 1984. These were not standalone workstations, but rather raster display units intended to be connected to more general-purpose machines like the DEC VAX. The early IRIS models used a PM1 CPU board, a variant of the one used by Stanford’s SUN workstation that David Brown had helped develop. These systems came equipped with 8 MHz Motorola 68000 processors and 768kB of RAM but no disk drive.

Later that same year, SGI would launch the 1400 and 1500. Each machine got a bump up to 10 MHz and 1.5 MB RAM. They also each had disk drives. The 1400 had a 72MB ST-506, and the 1500 sported a gigantic 474 MB SMD-based drive with a Xylogics disk controller.

SGI’s 2000 and 3000 series would emerge starting between 1985 and 1989. The various systems, including a “Turbo” line, were still using Motorola processors, albeit faster ones, and used the same graphics hardware. However, Brown had re-engineered the PM1 CPU module (now the PM2) to handle the higher frequency silicon. They had more RAM, and ST-506 and SMD disk drives became standard. They also sported Weitek Floating Point Accelerator boards.

By the time SGI discontinued the line in 1989, it had sold around 3,500 systems in total. Such a small number of units shipped may seem insignificant, but they were costly machines ranging from $45,000 to $100,000 each. By 1988, SGI’s revenue had steadily climbed to $153 million.

In the early 1990s, SGI introduced its first RISC systems. In 1991, the company produced its first 64-bit Crimson workstations powered by MIPS R4000 microprocessors. In a bid to secure a steady supply of MIPS processors, SGI bought the company, renaming it MIPS Technologies, Inc, in 1992. The acquisition of MIPS opened the door to other business ventures outside of SGI’s traditional wheelhouse.

In 1993, Nintendo approached SGI with the proposition of designing the company’s next GPU. The two companies penned the deal that summer, and SGI went to work developing the “Reality Coprocessor” (RCP). Three years later, Nintendo released its first 64-bit gaming console, the Nintendo 64.

Silicon Graphics’s most significant client during its RISC phase was Hollywood. Multiple studios bought up SGI machines to do post-production CG work and 3D animation in movies like Jurassic Park (1993), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Jerry Maguire (1996), Anastasia (1997), and Lost in Space (1998). According to IMDb, various studios used Silicon Graphics workstations in more than 40 productions between 1993 and 2003.

But Hollywood was not the only beneficiary of SGI’s innovative technologies. Its early workstations allowed users access to 3D graphics subsystems via its proprietary API known as IRIS Graphics Language. IRIS GL evolved over the years, and with each new feature, it became more bloated, harder to maintain, and complicated to use.

Movies made with SGI

Source: Gerhard Lenerz

Abyss1989early IRIS 4D (supposedly including 4D/120)
Antz1998O2 (166), Origin 2000 (270)
Casper unknown
Cats & Dogs2001O2, Octane 2, Origin 200, VW 230, VW 320
Evolution2001O2, Octane 2, Origin 200, VW 230, VW 320
Final Fantasy2001unknown
Forrest Gump unknown
Frighteners1996Indy, Indigo 2
Gladiator O2, Indigo 2 Extreme, Origin 200, Octane, Onyx, Dual Pentium
Hollow Man O2, Octane, Onyx, Origin 2000, Power Challenge
Ice Age Octane, Octane 2
Lord of the Rings2000Octane, Origin 2000, VW 230, VW 320
Jumanji unknown
Jurassic Park1993PowerSeries Twin Tower
Jurassic Park 21997unknown
Jurassic Park 32001unknown (O2 workstations)
Star Wars Episode 1 Indy, Indigo 2 (possibly O2, Origin 2000)
Starship Troopers unknown
Terminator 21991unknown (4D-era)
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle Onyx 2
The Crow unknown
The Hunt for Red October unknown
The Mask unknown
The Matrix1999Octane, Onyx 2, Origin 200
The Mummy unknown
The Perfect Storm O2, Origin 2000
The Rugrats Movie1998O2, Origin 200
Titanic unknown
Toy Story unknown
Twister1996Challenge, Power Challenge
What Dreams May Come Octane

In 1992, SGI decided that IRIS had become too complex, but it did not want to abandon it and start from scratch. Instead, developers re-engineered the API and began licensing it at little cost to its competitors. And OpenGL was born. The move allowed programmers to write cross-platform 3D graphics programs that were just as fast and efficient as IRIS systems had been.

SGI organized the OpenGL Architecture Review Board to oversee further developments contributed by the industry. The OpenGL standard remains the only cross-platform 3D-graphics API and has even been ported to cell phones and other portable devices. Its main competitor is Microsoft’s Direct3D, a DirectX API that only runs on Windows-based systems.

Management was of the opinion that the company should begin using its clout to seek growth by way of acquisition and exploration of secondary branches of the business.

This did not sit well with founder Clark, who wanted to continue focusing on developing high-end hardware. The stalemate prompted Clark to leave SGI in January 1994. The following month he co-founded the internet browser startup Mosaic Communications Corporation, which later became known as Netscape. After Clark’s departure, a series of bad investments in the late 1990s and early 2000s foreshadowed SGI’s decline.

In 1995, the company acquired three firms — Alias Research, Kroyer Films, and Wavefront Technologies — for about $500 million total. It merged the companies to form Alias/Wavefront, a high-end 3D graphics software development arm. Nine years later, SGI wrote it off as a loss, selling the division for about $57 million to equity investment firm Accel-KKR.

In February 1996, SGI decided to dabble in the supercomputer business with the purchase of Cray Research for $740 million. It renamed the company “Cray Business Systems Division,” and began working to develop technology (branded CrayLink) that could be integrated into SGI’s high-end server line.

This venture turned out to be very short-lived. SGI turned around and sold the division to Sun Microsystems that May, only three months after the acquisition, but retained the Cray branding. Although the details of the deal remain undisclosed, a Sun executive who helped broker the deal admitted that the acquisition was “significantly less than $100 million.”

“SGI was desperate,” Sun Executive Vice President John Shoemaker told Forbes. “They were running out of cash, and they needed to get the assets off its books. [We paid] less than you would imagine.”

In March 2000, SGI finally sold off the Cray brand and its Cray product line to Tera Computer Company for $35 million and a million shares. In September of that year, the floundering 3D graphics firm purchased Intergraph Computer Systems’ Zx10 line of Windows-based workstations for around $100 million. It rebranded the systems under the SGI name but discontinued them less than a year later in June 2001.

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June 2001 also marked the beginning of the end of SGI.

In 2003, the company vacated its headquarters in Mountain View, California and leased the building to Google. The following year, it sold off Alias/Wavefront, and by November 2005, SGI was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange after six consecutive years of declining sales.

SGI filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May 2006. The proceedings concluded that October. A year later, major shareholder Southpaw Asset management encouraged its clients to sell off their SGI stock due to declining value.

In August 2008, SGI posted $354.1 million in revenue, a 24-percent decline from the previous year and the last earnings report it would file. Come December of that year, Nasdaq warned SGI that it was considering delisting the company because of its financial struggling, but it never came to that.

On April 2009, SGI filed for Chapter 11 again and was sold to Fremont’s Rackable Systems for $25 million. SGI systems live on today but only in name. Rackable changed the name to Silicon Graphics International, kept the SGI trademark, and changed its Nasdaq ticker from RACK to SGI shortly after the purchase. However, today’s SGI primarily deals in high-end Linux servers rather than 3D graphics systems.

The SGI name also lives on through a hardcore hobbyist community. Wired notes that budding filmmakers can purchase legacy workstations through a “thriving” second-hand market. For example, a hobbyist can pick up an Indy, which went for around $14,000 in the 1990s, for about $40 now.

TechSpot’s Gone but Not Forgotten Series

The story of key hardware and electronics companies that at one point were leaders and pioneers in the tech industry, but are now defunct. We cover the most prominent part of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.

Image credit: Darel Parker, ruedigergad, Higher Intellect wiki

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