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.

Can Hobbyists Bring SGI’s IRIX OS Back To Life?

Irix was the operating system developed by Silicon Graphics from 1988 to 1998. The OS supported the company’s high-end workstations and served in many serious roles. The company cut off support for the UNIX-based OS in 2006, but now a diehard community is looking to bring the ancient codebase back to life.

SGI workstations used to cost big money before the company collapsed. It failed to make the leap to a new era when x86 architecture began to dominate the wider computing industry. Credit: Bruno Cordioli, CC-BY-2.0

While SGI’s workstations once sold for five or six figures, surviving examples can now often be had for just a few hundred dollars on eBay. The MIPS-based hardware was potent for its time, often used for 3D rendering work for video games, films, or for scientific purposes. IRIX was SGI’s own OS built specifically to support these use cases.

The IRIX Network is a hobbyist community that loves these old machines and their software. The group hopes to raise $6,500 through crowdfunding to reverse-engineer IRIX. The hope is to use those learnings to create an open-source derivative version named IRIX-32, based on IRIX 5.3, the last 32-bit version of the OS.

It’s a monumental task, but admirable nonetheless. Whether we one day see IRIX reborn, akin to what happened to AmigaOS, remains to be seen.

No, The Nintendo Leak Won’t Help Emulator Developers, And Here’s Why

If you haven’t heard from other websites yet, earlier this year a leak of various Nintendo intellectual properties surfaced on the Internet. This included prototype software dating back to the Game Boy, as well as Verilog files for systems up to the Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii. This leak seems to have originated from a breach in the BroadOn servers, a small hardware company Nintendo had contracted to make, among other things, the China-only iQue Player.

So, that’s the gist of it out of the way, but what does it all mean? What is the iQue Player? Surely now that a company’s goodies are out in the open, enthusiasts can make use of it and improve their projects, right? Well, no. A lot of things prevent that, and there’s more than enough precedent for it that, to the emulation scene, this was just another Tuesday.

Continue reading “No, The Nintendo Leak Won’t Help Emulator Developers, And Here’s Why”

Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go

When [Lawrence] showed us the Alice4 after Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend it wasn’t apparent how special the system was. The case is clean and white, adorned only with a big red button below a 7″ screen with a power switch around the back. When the switch is flicked the system boots to display a familiar animation and drops you at a menu. Poking around from here elicits a variety of self-contained graphics demos, some interactive. So this is a Raspberry Pi in a box playing videos, right? Not even close.

Often retro computing focuses on personal computer systems. When they were new the 8-bit graphics or intricate 2D sprites were state of the art, but now their appeal tends towards learning opportunities and the thrill of nostalgia. This may still be true of Alice4, the system [Brad, Lawrence, Mike, and Chris] put together to run Silicon Graphics (SGI) demos from the mid 1980’s but it’s not the whole story. [Lawrence] and [Brad] had both worked at SGI during its heyday and had fond memories of the graphics demos that shipped with those mammoth workstation. So they built Alice4 from the FPGA up to run those very same demos in real-time.

Thanks to Moore’s law, today’s embedded systems put yesterday’s powerhouses within reach. [Lawrence] and [Brad] found the old demo code in a ratty FTP server, and tailor-made Alice4’s software and hardware to run them natively. [Brad] wrote a libgl which implements the subset of the IrisGL API needed to support their selected set of demos. The libgl emits sets of triangles to the SDRAM where [Lawrence’s] HDL running on the onboard FPGA fetches them to interpolate color and depth and draw the result on-screen. Together they allow the $99 Altera Cyclone V development board at Alice4’s heart to run these state of the art demos in the palm of your hand.

Alice4 is open source and extensively documented. Peruse the archeology of reverse engineering the graphics API or the discussion of FIFO design in the FPGA. If those don’t sate your appetite check out a video of Alice4 in action after the break.

Continue reading “Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go”

Hackaday Links: June 12, 2012

Amazing 3D rendering in real-time

Ah, the 90s. A much simpler time when the presenters on Bad Influence! were amazed by the 3D rendering capabilities of the SGI Onyx RealityEngine2. This giant machine cost £250,000 back in the day, an amazing sum but then again we’re getting nostalgic for old SGI hardware.

Well, Mega is taken… let’s call it Grande

[John Park] needed to put something together for last month’s Maker Faire. A comically large, fully functional Arduino was the obvious choice. If you didn’t catch the demo last month, you can grab all the files over on Thingiverse.

Is that an atomic clock in your pocket or… oh, I see.

Here’s the world’s smallest atomic clock. It’s made for military hardware, so don’t expect this thing to show up at Sparkfun anytime soon; we can’t even fathom how much this thing actually costs. Still, it’ll be awesome when this technology trickles down to consumers in 10 or 20 years.

Converting a TRS-80 keyboard to USB

[Karl] is working on an awesome project – putting a Raspberry Pi inside an old TRS-80. The first part of the project – converting a TRS-80 keyboard to USB – is already complete. We can’t wait to see this build finished.

 A DIY Propeller dev board

Last week we complained about the dearth of builds using the Parallax Propeller. A few noble tinkerers answered our call and sent in a few awesome builds using this really unique micro. [Stefan]’s Propeller One is the latest, and looking at the schematics it should be possible to etch a single-sided board for this project. Awesome work and thanks for giving us a weekend project, [Stefan].

SGI 10,000 Core Concept


In a bold move, Silicon Graphics has decided to see how much crap many cores they can shove in one box. The Molecule is 10,000 core rackmount machine designed to leverage low cost consumer CPUs like the Intel Atom. It emphasizes high memory bandwidth and throughput between CPUs. While this sort of space efficiency is interesting it’s certainly going to take some serious cooling to get designs like this off the ground.

[via Hacked Gadgets]

Mark Hoekstra Has Passed Away

UPDATE: His personal site has been updated.

It was with great sadness that we learned of [Mark Hoekstra]’s death this morning. Earlier this week, the 34 year old hacker suffered a heart attack while riding his bicycle and was admitted to the hospital in a coma. [Markie] has been a Hack a Day commenter for much of our existence and a project contributor for nearly as long. It started simply with things like his bright green Hack a Day iPod sock and a hand crank iPod charger. He did an excellent job documenting his projects; many people had built IR cameras, but none were nearly as thorough as him. He also enjoyed sharing his love for obsolete hardware with the community. He built a wireless eMate, turned two Mac SE/30’s into audio viualizers, and wired shutter glasses to an old SGI.

It was always a treat to hear about [Mark]’s latest project and he’ll be missed greatly.

[photo: Bram Belloni]