SGI SPECIAL: Introducing the Jewel of UNIX, the 64-bit IRIX OS

In the ’90s, before MacOSX was released, if people were to reffer to a user-friendly Unix that looked cool at the time, that would have been SGI’s 64-bit operating system for the MIPS processors, the IRIX. IRIX was first released in 1987, and by 1995 was already a highly respected UNIX, the first with immense multimedia capabilities! Check out our introduction and some screenshots of IRIX.Click for a larger version SGI was very kind to send us on a loan in this dual Octane 2×195 Mhz MIPS machine accompanied with a 24″ SGI-branded Trinitron monitor. IRIX 6.5.17 came preinstalled with the machine. The Octane boots IRIX in something less than 1.5 minutes, which is a normal booting time for “traditional” Unices. Shutdown time is almost instant though.

Being a UNIX, IRIX is fully multi-user, and while I tried all the pre-configured users on this machine (including root), I mostly used the system for the past two weeks using the “Guest” account. The Guest account has quite some privillages by default, I was even able to install software, for example some KDE libraries and applications, so it was good enough to keep me going.

The IRIX desktop features a long-ish rectangle in the upper left of the screen, called the Toolchest. Think of it as the “Start menu” of IRIX. You can open from there the filemanager for local or networked drives, access your preferences, open applications or virtual workspaces.

With IRIX a number of applications and GL demos are included, among these you will find Netscape 4.79, which is the main browser in the system, Nedit, an email client and lots of other X software like XCalc, XClock etc.

Click for a larger version From the server side of things, you will find Apache, the ability to browse or share resources and folders via NFS and more.

The great thing about IRIX is that a lot of open source applications have been ported over to the proprierty X11 of IRIX, so I was able to run a full Gnome 1.4.1 session, Windowmaker, Gnumeric, Gimp, XMMS and even Qt applications and KDE 3.0.2. The good people at SGI have installed the latest “Freeware CDs” that SGI is offering, so even Mozilla 1.0 was included to… save me from the Netscape 4.79 experience. First thing I did of course was to change the tsch shell over to Bash.

The SGI desktop is of course based on a heavily modified commercial X Server. And here I will stop for a second, get a big breath and say: ‘wow’. I have never seen an X server being so fast, on a 5-year old machine (no matter if this is an SGI machine or not). X just works and the OS recognizes all the possible VESA resolutions (not like XFree86 and its problems with high-end monitors)! IRIX boots into graphics immediately, no text mode at all. The interesting thing is that even Mozilla and Gnome 1.4 feels very fast on this machine, much faster than on my much newer dual Celeron 533 PC. While I could not “measure” exactly its speed, I think that this dual Octane at 195 Mhz is at least as fast as a PIII at 700 Mhz or so it feels like.

The OS comes with a number of preference panels for audio, video hardware, graphics hardware, mouse and more.
There is this application called “Icon Catalog” while while it looks like a file manager, it has categorized items where you can access the installed applications. Under the Media tab you will find applications like a Media Player, MediaRecorder, Converters, Sound players, Video In/Out apps and more.

One of the most innovating things about the IRIX in the ’90s were the vector icons it uses for its desktop and file/icon managers. IRIX had vector support by default in its desktop long before MacOSX ever existed.

Click for a larger version For the Unix side of things, IRIX is based on BSD 4.4 (do not confuse this root of all BSDs in the ’80s with today’s FreeBSD 4.x), and its directory structure is definately a bit different than what you find on today’s Linuxes. There are a lot more information and directories lying around. Maybe the most easy to spot difference is that there is no “home” directory, instead it is called “people” and it lives under /usr/.

IRIX packages are called “tardist” and there is a GUI tool to install/uninstall applications! Most of the software for IRIX is coming in this pre-defined package format, which makes it very easy to handle packages. Because there is one IRIX, one company behind it, and very specific versions, there are virtually no dependancy problems. Installations just work.

The filesystem used is the well known XFS file system, which is my favorite under the Linux platform as well (mostly because of its resemblance and similar feature-set to BFS – not a surprise, the person who created the BFS, Dominic Giampaolo, used to work at SGI before he come to Be to create BFS). It seems to perform very well (even if the hard drives included in this Octane are a bit dated these days).

The window manager included on IRIX is the 4Dwm, while the toolkit used is the king of the Unix toolkits, Motif. It was cool to see the IRIX supports “Data Translations” which are mini-apps that transform from one multimedia file format to another.

SGI machines based on MIPS are mostly serving two kinds of applications: High-end movie animating (Simpsons were created with SGIs and a trackload of movies with special effects) and OpenGL applications (eg. a visual weather system, astronomy stuff, CAD/CAM and more). While I didn’t have any animating software to test with, there are a number of OpenGL demos and apps included in the system. And I am very positively surprised as to how FAST OpenGL is on an SGI machine. We should not forget that this is a 5 year old graphics card and machine, which came out at a time that Voodoo1 was making its first shy steps, and SGI was already selling graphics cards that are faster than my recently purchased GeForce2MX-400 Asus card (one of the fastest GeForce2MX models). I ran some GL demos and screensavers on this machine on full resolution at 1920×1200 and they were not losing frames at all. I ran similar GL screensavers and other pretty low-complexity demos on my AthlonXP 1600+ (a machine faster than this Octane) under Red Hat Linux 8.0 the other day, and when the nVidia drivers wouldn’t choke and crash the kernel, the overall performance was sub-optimal. Of course, SGI has tweaked their X server to fully “understand” and support OpenGL and multiple overlays, but this is something that the other Unices haven’t mastered yet (with only exception this of the pretty recent MacOSX, which however is not based on X11).

Click for a larger version So far, so good. I am very impressed by the stability and speed of this system. However, there are bad points to be mentioned as well. For example, SGI does not make full use of the XFS goodies, at least not the way BeOS did. Also, the OS looks dated. It really looks unatractive when compared to brand new OS systems. Usabilty of the OS is an issue as well. That filemanager, whilst is fast and spiffy doing vector stuff, it is really limited. I am sure that most people who are using IRIX are using it just to use a very specific high-end application and they do not use the system as a desktop, still, it could have been better. I feel that SGI does not put a lot of effort to update the desktop and provide something new and fresh. IRIX is pretty much the same as it was 2 or 3 or 4 years ago. And this is truly a shame, because underneath this greyish ugly-ish look and pretty problematic usability, there is a huge potential. SGI needs to invest in this OS. It is truly the jewel of UNIX, it has extraordinary tweaks in its kernel and X11 and surrounding libraries to perform greatly on multimedia and even server tasks, but it is also true that the system looks dated.

Personally, I will follow the future of IRIX with great interest, because as I said above, there is still huge potential and more advances to be made to this fully 64-bit operating system.


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