The Rise And Fall Of Silicon Graphics

Maybe best known as the company which brought a splash of color to corporate and scientific computing with its Indigo range of computer systems, Silicon Graphics Inc. (later SGI) burst onto the market in 1981 with what was effectively one of the first commercial graphics operations accelerator with the Geometry Engine. SGI’s founder – James Henry Clark was quite possibly as colorful a character as the company’s products, with [Bradford Morgan White] covering the years leading up to SGI’s founding, its highlights and its eventual demise in 2009.

The story of SGI is typical of a start-up that sees itself become the market leader for years, even as this market gradually changes. For SGI it was the surge in commodity 3D graphics cards in the 1990s alongside affordable (and cluster-capable; insert Beowulf cluster jokes here) server hardware that posed a major problem. Eventually it’d start offering Windows NT workstations, drop its MIPS-based systems in a shift to Intel’s disastrous Itanium range of CPUs and fall to the last-ditch effort of any struggling company: a logo change.

None of this was effective, naturally, and ultimately SGI would file (again) for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, with Rackable Systems snapping up its assets and renaming itself to SGI, before getting bought out by HPE and sunsetting SGI as a brand name.

49 thoughts on “The Rise And Fall Of Silicon Graphics

  1. I’ve got two of the indy r5000 units. Just checked on the auction site and they are definitely worht selling. The thing that really got me when I got them is a 1GB hard drive from 1996. I don’t want to know what that drive alone would have cost.

      1. I had an SGI Octane2 for work in the early 00’s for running CFD simulations at work complete with dual CPU’s, 8GB RAM, an external CD burner and 10GB HD for only $250K.

        To date, IRIX is still my favourite OS

        1. They were mostly SCSI Seagate Barracudas, transfer rates easily out performing most PC hard drives, they were capable of RT video capture speeds, and in some cases particulary with server versions, have custom SGI firmware as well.
          (ex SGI Engineer) :)

          1. I had a Seagate Barracuda on my PC and I don’t recall they were particularly fast.

            They were all 7200 RPM drives at that time, and the speed was limited by the RPM times the data density on the platter, times the number of platters, so you could just about get up to saturate an SCSI-2 link under sequential reads or writes for the largest drives they made. That was only 20 MB/s.

    1. Are yours running? I need a drive with the UNIX on board. Mine is the controller for my Archipel Volvox Transputer “Supercomputer”. About 60 Transputers, 4 to a board in 2 trays of boards.

    2. i can tell you my personal HDD cost journey around this time. in around 1992 i bought an A590 for my amiga 500. it was 20 meg and cost 400 quid. so 20 pounds a megabyte. my next drive was in 1994. it was 127 meg and cost only 200 pounds. so around .6 quid a meg. next was 350 meg a year or 2 later, for the same kind of price, around 200 pounds. so this was around .2 pounds a megabyte.
      i seem to recall in 96 the normal 200 quid would have bought just under a gig, 750 perhaps.

    3. I bought a 1GB SCSI Hard Drive for a PC in 1994 and it was nearly US $1000. Prices decreased as storage got cheaper but vendors always charged more than retail for storage upgrades. Not sure how much SGI charged for different storage options. On an unrelated note, I got a free Indigo2 in 1999 no one wanted which shows SGI demand was definitely declining by the late 90s.

  2. Where I worked back in the 1990s, we had Indigo’s for the programmers, an Onyx, and another one about the same size as the Onyx. Others, (sysadmins, scientists, and student workers) had Sun Microsystems workstations. A few Indy’s came later.

  3. The factory I interned at got an O2 for some CAM software they wanted to run. I was the only one on site who had messed with any UNIX so I got to help set it up and fool around with it. I remember the granite-look keyboard and mouse feeling particularly nice. IRIX was just OK, I was mad that there were no compilers or anything installed after all my time on the systems at college running Digital UNIX with all the bells and whistles.

      1. I wasn’t going to fool around with that machine too much, they needed it to make revenue. I had plenty of fun on my Slackware machine at home at night. It was just jarring to run into a machine that was only for running programs and not doing all the other fun stuff we like to do. Same with the Xenix box we had at another job, just enough to run the main application and don’t you dare do anything else.

  4. Digital Equipment Corporation, Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, … all seemed to be corporations that were too big to fail back in the 1990’s. Funny how technology moves so fast, that being big makes you more likely to fail, unless you are so big that losing a billion here or there doesn’t bother you.

  5. Made a lot of people rich along the way. My startup started the same year in pretty much the same business, even working together a few times, our public offering was blown up by the crash of ’87, and we never caught another wave, and eventually sold out for a pittance in 2012. Jim Clark was smarter than me, I guess. And as another coincidence, we both bought sailboats with our proceeds – Clark bought a 100ft monster racer and I bought something about 1/3 the size. Mine used all my proceeds while he barely noticed.

  6. America Online’s The Hub ran on an Indy. It was a beautiful machine that outperformed everything in the office. When they hired me to be ‘webmaster’ the one requirement was that i remove the gui from the box to improve performance.

  7. I worked for them from 1994 to 1999. First job out of University, and I thought every company was as cool as that. When I roamed the hallways at SGI HQ there were employee’s dogs hanging out with each other, the Iris Cafe was stunning, sgi.bad-attitude was supported by the CEO, and people doing incredible (and sometimes silly) things. Not everything was great: the company had a habit of shipping things before they were finished (“throw it over the wall and support will get it working”). But wow. Everyone had a SGI workstation on their desk!

    Then I went from there to Sun, where I got given a SPARCstation 5 (what a piece of crap), and exposure to “the dot in .com”. Reality hit hard.

    My perception of what happened to SGI:

    * The company found itself in a really pivotal position, largely accidentally, and the execs all assumed it was their brilliance which put them there. It wasn’t the exec’s brilliance.
    * They killed high-end MIPS way too early, and even worse, committed to the disaster of Itanium
    * They didn’t enforce their patents aggressively enough, as they could have killed NVIDIA, ATI and Microsoft with them. They should have done so, and pursued the consumer market themselves (Magic Carpet).
    * There is no such thing as “we’re working with Microsoft” in the late 90s. They tried. They failed.
    * The Cray acquisition was a fiasco from start to finish. Talk about incompatible corporate cultures. Even to this day, that experience informs me when I look at companies which are merging.
    * Should have embraced Linux earlier, and ported some of the very cool Irix infrastructure over there. Ironically, one of the reasons there was push back about getting Linux running on SGI hardware was just how many workarounds to hardware bugs there were in the driver code! See above about shipping stuff too early.

    1. “* They didn’t enforce their patents aggressively enough, as they could have killed NVIDIA, ATI and Microsoft with them.”

      Anti-patent crowd says boo. Also in the future killing ATI would have killed AMD.

  8. We have “museum” at work where we put old broken stuff. One of each. That includes a blue SGI workstation. I’ve never used one as that was from before my time.

    There used to be very tall building with the SGI logo in Rotterdam, near the Novell headquarters. That was at least 20 years ago. This post reminded me of that.

    1. Speaking of tall buildings…
      I had a cow-orker tell me he hated a particular PC so much that he plugged it into an extension cord, booted it and threw it off a building so that it would be running when it hit the ground.

  9. I love the silicon graphics machines. Worked on NASA training system software. About 96 or 97 we swapped over to generic Linux boxes for our group of about 20. Cost for all of our Linux work stations and a server or two was equivalent to 1 year’s maintenance on the silicon graphics systems. But by then I already had at least one Red hat system running at home so liked the improved storage and speed at work. But even today I still miss the beauty and elegance of the old silicon graphics machines

    1. This turned out to be such BS economy it is not even funny. I worked with a bunch of morons who spouted that over and over. At that point we pretty much lived on Sun’s sparc hardware and solaris, but literally one blowhard was crying oh, linux is soooooo much cheaper. They got management to buy into it, and for our next generation things were awful when they could have almost been drop in replacements. And per usual, I had history with the blowhards, I wound up having to make their mistakes work.

      So, the big issues were there are just a lot of differences tween Linux and Solaris of that era, and also moving major applications from one to the other and little gotchas in there were literally crippling out of the box. I wound up spending a lot of long nights getting us back to where we could have been in the first place. The odd thing is I think in time we would have wound up where we did at some point in the future, but at a more relaxed pace, and some testing along the way.

      The cost thing turned out to be laughable. The thing is good server hardware costs good money and in the end there was literally zero savings. Sun would drastically cut prices on it’s hardware, or at least on the computers proper. Big fast scsi disks and ram turned out to be, big surprise commodity items and they would not play big discount games with them, short of making them about the same price as everybody else. And again no big surprise the big discount numbers they were used to seeing did not apply to Intel based servers. So, in the end the hardware costs were about the same, but getting us up and going on the new hardware was costly, and the people behind the swap did not have the capacity to deal with it. If you smell some inter office animosity it was there for sure, but this one group had this habit of selling management on bad ideas, and than sticking other people with making them work. The good news that was the end of one of the blowhards, between that and another beyond stupid decision they were amazingly not fired, but at least neutered.

      Every time, to this day, when I hear someone talking about linux being so much cheaper, it turns out to be a very apples and oranges comparison. Server class hardware on the one side, and $200 import desktops on the other.

  10. I can remember reading about folks complaining about how bloated IRIX 5 was, entry level Indy workstations only shipped with 8Mb of RAM. You needed at least 16Mb to prevent swapping. This was back in 1992 so 16Mb was still considered a huge amount of RAM.

  11. Back in the day we had the Unix lab that had a bit of everything. The SGI machines were wonderful adult babysitters. You could sit someone down with one of the demos and leave them for hours. It was interesting seeing how many of them became common pc demos later on. By the end we could not give the stuff away. I thought my junk pile was at capacity, but I did scarp up a couple of the Itanium processors to remember them by.

    1. It was pretty clear the employees at Silicon Graphics liked to make demos. Several were included on the OS install media. Not to mention all the Indyzone cds filled with demos as well.

    2. Engineering office were i used to work back in early ’90s was running on Indy’s. On of the demos was called Dogfight if my memory serves me right. Still remember the games of networked Dogfight during lunchtime between all the engineers.

  12. “ Maybe best known as the company which brought a splash of color to corporate and scientific computing”

    Um, no. Maybe best known for revolutionizing special effects in Hollywood movies.

  13. Back in 1992, my desktop was a 64-bit SGI Iris Indigo R4000 with XZ graphics to support data visualization and motion graphics work using GL. Later, I incorporated a fridge-sized POWER Challenge R8000-based supercomputer into my workflow (upgraded to R10k at some point). That machine was one of the top 500 supercomputers on the planet and on its factory shipping crate had the codename “Terminator” painted on it. A few short years later, cluster computing hit and graphics hardware plummeted in price, partially triggered by SGI itself with the co-engineering and release of the Nintendo 64.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.