SGI enters Windows NT market

Animators, engineers and others in graphics-intensive jobs no longer have to choose between expensive high-end systems and Windows NT with the release of the new visual workstations from Silicon Graphics Canada Ltd., according to the vendor.

“In the past, people would look at the words ‘Silicon Graphics’ and ‘inexpensive workstations’ as a bit of an oxymoron,” said David Wharry, president and CEO of Silicon Graphics Canada.

Once solely a Unix supplier, with the introduction of the 320 and the 540 workstations SGI has become “technologically agnostic” and is now addressing a much broader market, he said.

The SGI 320 visual workstation will run on one or two Pentium II 450MHz processors and include up to 1GB of ECC SDRAM memory. The workstation will ship with three PCI expansion slots, two storage bays, integrated floppy drive, CD-ROM and a hard drive of up to 14.4GB.

The SGI 540 will be configured with up to four Pentium II Xeon 450MHz processors with 512KB, 1MB or 2MB of L2 cache and up to 2GB of ECC SDRAM memory. The 540 will ship with six PCI expansion slots, three storage bays, an integrated floppy drive, CD-ROM and a 9GB 7,200 rpm Ultra2 SCSI disk drive, upgradeable to 10,000 rpm in either 9GB or 18GB.

The 540 also has digital video-out capability for use in professional broadcasting, which was not previously available on any NT box, Wharry said.

The architecture of both workstations, called IVC (integrated visual computing), utilizes the Cobalt Graphics Chipset and moves graphics and data at six times the rate of any AGP bus today, he said.

“It also provides I/O bandwidth equivalent to 12 times the performance of a PCI bus system and allows 80 per cent of the system memory to be used for graphics textures. With most NT boxes, you have to purchase texture memory separately.”

Mary Rother, vice-president of Ottawa-based Branham Group Inc., said the features SGI has been able to port to the NT platform are what impressed her the most.

“There isn’t any degradation of performance at all between its Unix platforms and NT,” she said. “But I think Unix is always going to have a place (because) NT in and of itself is not as scaleable. So for very large computing needs, Unix is always going to be there.”

Vancouver Film School in Vancouver has put in an order for several of the 320 workstations, the biggest draw being price-performance, said Graeme Gish, director of animation.

“The nice thing about the NT world is that you have access to all the applications that run on NT. Then when you are looking at hardware solutions for NT, in most cases [vendors] are all using the same type of standard hardware, the same PCI buses and the same graphics cards,” he said. “But in the case of the visual workstations, SGI has re-engineered the architecture of the box…to perform at a very high level.”

William Hanna, director of the School of Media Studies at Toronto-based Humber College, decided to purchase 20 of the 320 workstations for the high-end NT lab at the school, where graphics-intensive programs like SoftImage are frequently run, because his tech team was “blown away” by SGI’s new Cobalt chipset.

“The traditional bottleneck for high-end graphics has been the transfer speed that the bus can handle between an add-on card and a chipset,” Hanna said. “And what SGI has done is put all the video and audio directly onto the chipset, which means there is no gnarling of the transfer rate. You get out-of-the-box, fantastic 2D and 3D manipulation.”

Alan Freedman, research manager for servers and workstations at IDC (Canada) Corp. in Toronto, said SGI first announced these workstations two years ago, and the delay was causing some speculation in the industry.

“Now that [SGI] finally has a product out, I think it will ease customer confidence. And it’s a good market to be into – it’s really growing.”

The Silicon Graphics 320 visual workstations ( will be available in February starting at $5,455. The 540 will ship in Q2 of 1999 at an entry price of $9,635.

Silicon Graphics Canada in Mississauga, Ont., is at 1-888-400-4744.