Interview with Addison Snell of SGI

This week OSNews spoke to Addison Snell, a Product Marketing Manager at SGI. The legendary computer maker has been through some tumultuous times in the last few years but seems ready to make a healthy resurgence. Two weeks ago they hosted their Global Developer Conference in San Francisco. This is the first of a number of conversations OSNews will be hosting about SGI.1. Can you tell us what was the focus of the SGI World Developer Conference?

Addison Snell: The big thing that we were stressing at the Conference was SGI?s long term commitment to IRIX on MIPS. That lost a lot of attention externally, never internally, mind you. Recently a lot of vendors have been moving away from their RISC platforms, and moving towards an Intel platform. We think that a lot of people are losing focus on where their customers are at currently and what direction they want to head in.

2. The conference was also an opportunity to introduce Visual Area Networking (VAN). What is VAN?

Addison Snell: Well the general trend that we?ve seen is Moore?s Law, or the doubling of computer power on a fairly predictable schedule. At the same time bandwidth demands have grown, and data-sets have also been growing fantastically. Ten years ago if you were building a car there were maybe 10 000 elements that had to be considered and calculated. Today, that?s grown a 1000 fold to 10 000 000 elements. However bandwidth availability hasn?t grown at nearly that rate. By comparison, computer screen resolution has improved over the last 10 years, but not comparably.

Visual Area Networking (VAN) allows you to send pictures of the data, rather than send the data. Which is a much more efficient use of bandwidth. So a geologist in the field can access data on the company?s supercomputer from a hand held computer.

3. What was the makeup of the conference?

Addison Snell: Developers mostly. We get a lot of ISVs (independent software vendors) there from the different fields that we serve, technical and creative. But, ‘custom’ is our number one application. So it was a diverse field. But some notable attendees included
Lockheed Martin,
Landmark Graphics,
TrueSAN Networks, and many more.

4. Where does the conference fit in a larger scheme for SGI?

Addison Snell: The conference, and the developer program, are investments by SGI into the IRIX developer community. SGI is facilitating growth with these developers by making it easy to develop innovative applications on IRIX. This “growth” undoubtedly has effects on other communities. Companies are able to expand their business by working with SGI and learning how to effectively innovate with IRIX. It is also important to consider that the developers we are investing in include, hobbyists, educational institutions, small ISVs, and other companies.

5. Would you describe this as MacWorld for SGI?

Addison Snell: That?s a good analogy. Our customers are primarily also developers. Our focus was on product development and reassuring our customers about our long-term focus. Also a lot of good work is done at these functions in the technical breakout sessions where some of the best minds share ideas about optimizing code for best scalability. We?ve also included special events, product showcases, and at the end of the day the chance to hang out with SGI product engineers. Or, ?have a beer with an engineer.?

6. What?s the typical first time exposure to IRIX for a developer?

Addison Snell: I?ve had the chance to meet with a lot of customers, people who are now a company director or researcher for a large oil-company or something. And they say that they?re really happy to be able to code with SGI. That they?d first had exposure in the college and the SGI was the coolest thing in the lab. They?re glad to get to use it for programming now.

7. Is that the enduring appeal of SGI? It?s popularity with developers?

Addison Snell: We?ve had a lot of customers that have been with SGI for a long time, either continually or on and off. It?s neat being in this market; there?s no end to how tough a problem these guys can come up with. We could come out with a computer tomorrow that was 10 times as powerful and they could come out with problems that could outpace it. That?s why our customers and products are different from the general server market and companies like IBM or Compaq.

What I would say is that IBM, HP and Sun in the general server space work to optimize an ERP solution or payroll system. Whereas with our customers scalability and optimizing performance are paramount. We have that focus a lot more.

SGI isn?t the only company in the field, there?s CRAY , which is focused on supercomputing and Concurrent who?s focused in the media serving space. But in high performance systems for visualization and massive scalability, we are unique. In fact, we are the hugest vendor in this small market.

8. You?ve got a fairly diverse group of customers. How do you resolve this?

Addison Snell: You mean, what does a new media advertising jockey and a chemist in a lab-coat have in common? In the industries that we address, government (defense), oil&gas exploration, telco, science and entertainment, the first thing you notice is that SGI is being used at the core of the business. An automaker might have a large network of computers for all sorts of functions, but SGI is what they use to design and build cars with wind-tunnel simulations and such. A government customer might use SGI products for intelligence gathering, but not to run the payroll functions.

So, what do these customers have in common? They each have intellectual property, or smart people who know things. And SGI allows them to build models for their IP.

When Bob Bishop was introducing Visual Area Networking at the Developer Conference he said, “SGI bridges the gap between having superior information and making better decisions.”

9. SGI is synonymous with advances in movie visual effects.

Addison Snell: It?s what we?re most well known for, but it?s the smallest revenue segment of our business, in comparison to DoD. Interestingly, we?ve taken the functionality that we?ve picked up in movies and entertainment and transferred it to defense customers. Our earliest customer was the Department of Defense using our flight simulators. I?d like to say that we at SGI are very proud of our role in national security.

10. Can you give us a specific example?

Addison Snell: We?ll create some new visual effect for Hollywood, which in turn will allow us to help create a better battlefield simulation. Hollywood folks are very concerned with how things look from a distance, determining at what point your eye notices objects in a field and at what point are things noticed as discrete. The work has been done to ensure that it doesn?t become visible before you would notice them naturally. You can probably see how important that would be in a tank simulator and such. Now a helicopter pilot can train in a simulator with exactly the same geography of the area that he would encounter in the real world. A pilot can run a practice mission in the simulator over terrain generated from yesterday?s satellite imagery. It?s a powerful tool.

11. SGI supports Linux as well as IRIX. Is there a flow of benefits between the two?

Addison Snell: Absolutely. A lot of work has been happening in scalable Linux systems. But we don?t see that taking away from IRIX. What IRIX has that other operating systems doesn?t is sophisticated real time capabilities. IRIX users also benefit from a very mature development environment, and a long history of 64 bit computing.

12. Excellent. When is the next Developer Conference?

Addison Snell: SGI is committed and looking forward to our next major event for the developer community, the 2003 Global Developer Conference. Exact location and dates are still under negotiation. It is worthy to mention that SGI just completed two developer conferences in a 11 month period but our goal is to conduct this key event once a year (every 12 months). We will also have several more intimate events throughout the year and the world including ‘matchmaking’ an invitational event for approximately 20 developers that wish to expand their markets geographically; meet with SGI distributors in a region to develop business plans (EMEA is planned for the summer with ICON in the fall). In addition, in August we plan to hold two invitation only corporate visits where SGI senior engineering and marketing will present the SGI FY03 strategy and roadmap to our developers. As these plans develop, further details will be communicated to our developer community at large.


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