05/12/2021

063 – Graphics workstations – 1981

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I like to look at big markets and see if I can carve off a thick slice. Jim Clark

Jim Clark attended the University of Utah where as a PhD student he worked with Evans & Sutherland.  As an associate professor at Stanford, with Marc Hannah he designed the Geometry Engine as part of an outreach VLSI project developed by Lynn Conway and Carver Mead from Xerox PARC.  Clark spent four months at PARC on his VLSI design and in 1981 attracted venture capital to co-found Silicon Graphics Inc with others from Stanford.

SGI specialised in 3D graphics display terminals based on the Geometry Engine, allowing speedy resolution of the geometric calculations to create 3D images. 

1984 – its IRIS series, integrated raster imaging system, used a motherboard from Stanford to which it added a 68000 MPU and the standard Multibus.  SGI developed the Iris graphics language to give users ready access to the advanced graphics features of the system.  The terminal evolved and by the time of release the IRIS 3130 was capable of full 3D animation and rendering.

MIPS Computer Systems was founded in 1984 by another Stanford Research team, headed by John Hennessy and Dr John Moussouris.  It set about developing reduced instruction set computer microprocessors, RISC.  The R2000 and R3000 MPUs proved successful and the company had a strong IPO in 1989. 

I991 – SGI joined others to promote advanced RISC computing.  The initiative sought to weaken Intel’s control of the MPU market and challenge Sun’s workstation dominance.  SGI used the MIPS RISC chips with the UNIX System V OS on its IRIX workstation to deliver fully realised 3D graphics.

While MIPS was developing its 64-bit R4000 processor it was sidetracked in to design of its own computers, soon running into trouble.

SGI had already started to use the MIPS R4000, and to secure its supply it acquired MIPS in 1992 for $333m renaming it as MTI, MIPS Technologies Inc.  The SGI IRIX 6.2 was its 64-bit product that used the R4000.  Later SGI espoused the Intel Itanium processor and sold off MTI; though Itanium was delayed and caused it problems.

SGI updated IrisGL and released it as OpenGL, a low-cost licensable product maintained as the standard by a cross-industry group.  OpenGL became the 3D graphics standard; only Microsoft chose to go its own way.

1994 – Jim Clark raised the necessary funding to found Mosaic Communications Corporation, aka Netscape, with Marc Andreessen and others from the NCSA Mosaic team.

SGI acquisitions were not as successful.  In February 1995 it acquired Alias and Wavefront, which it merged to become Alias|Wavefront.  Some $500m was paid for the two companies: by June 2004 this was sold off to a private equity firm for only $57m.

1996 – SGI merged with the supercomputer manufacturer Cray Research at a cost of $740m   It sold Cray’s Superservers division on to Sun for $50-60m.  The CS6400 became the basis for the Sun Ultra Enterprise which developed a whole series of workstations and servers.  Sun described this deal as the ‘Best investment since Microsoft bought DOS’. By the end of the noughties SGI had twice needed to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, eventually acquired in 2009 by Rackable Systems for just $42.5m; it became Silicon Graphics International.

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