SGI in Trouble Again

If there is one company out there that embodies “former glory”, it just has to be Silicon Graphics Incorporated. Once one of the most well-respected high-performance computer and software makers of the world, it is now a mere shadow of its former self. The most recent set of financial results from the company do not bode well for the already troubled company.

SGI made most of its name back when it was the primary supplier of graphics hardware for the Hollywood visual effects industry. The company supplied this demanding industry with heavy duty graphics workstations, as well as high-performance visualisation systems. SGI’s penetration in this market became clear when the brand started to appear in high-profile movies, with the most memorable being the “This is a UNIX system, I know this.” case of Jurassic Park.

However, with the rise of powerful graphics hardware in cheap, ordinary computers, as well as the emergence of Linux and the advent of the Windows/Linux/Mac OS X port of Maya, led to the company slowly being pushed out of the visual effects industry, being replaced by the aforementioned cheaper options. Instead, the company focussed on government work, the scientific market and high-end servers and supercomputers.

There were several other confounding factors that have helped in SGI’s decline. The company prematurely announced a switch from MIPS to Itanium in 1998, after which it quickly became clear that Intel could not deliver the Itanium on time; to make matters worse, Itanium would not reach the speeds as promised by Intel. This left SGI with a set of outdated MIPS-based products, and they quickly had to release new models with faster processors to remain competitive. The switch to Itanium was continued later on, and at one point, the SGI Altix formed the base of the Columbia supercomputer, which was built out of 20 Altix 3000 systems with 512 Itanium processors each. At the time, this was by far the faster supercomputer in the world.

In 2006 the company announced the end of its legendary MIPS product line, as well as the end of the IRIX operating system, preferring Linux instead, all as part of a plan to bring the company back to positive figures. Not long after, the company emerged from bankruptcy, and things started to look up again. The company even re-entered the famed visualisation market with the SGI Virtu running Linux or Windows Compute Cluster.

However, due to the economic downturn, the company has made a few steps back during the last quarter. I won’t bore you with the figures, but suffice to say it’s not going well. The company is hoping to get government support, rooting for a slice of the stimulus pie president Obama and the US Congress are working on right now. If that is fair or not is debatable; the company was already in trouble before the crisis, so I’m not sure if they even deserve help from the government.

In any case, SGI is a legendary company, and it would be a sad day for the computing world if they went under. Sure, companies come and go, but I’m sure SGI has a special place in the hearts of many computer fans out there.


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