Silicon Graphics defends 3-D position with roll-out of O2 workstation line

October 23, 1996

Firm eliminates bus architecture to increase speedThe routine clinical use of 3-D image processing should get amajor boost thanks to a new line of workstations unveiled thismonth by Silicon Graphics of Mountain View, CA. SGI is toutingits new O2

Firm eliminates bus architecture to increase speed

The routine clinical use of 3-D image processing should get amajor boost thanks to a new line of workstations unveiled thismonth by Silicon Graphics of Mountain View, CA. SGI is toutingits new O2 product line as offering more power at a lower price,which will enable clinicians to perform advanced 3-D clinicalapplications at desktop prices.

Silicon Graphics unveiled O2 and several other workstationadvances at an Oct. 7 news conference. In an attempt to highlightthe company's emphasis on the Internet and World Wide Web, SGI"Webcast" the introduction with a news conference thatcould be viewed through the company's Web page. The result wasan event that at times more resembled a high-tech talk show thana product debut.

O2 is now SGI's entry-level desktop workstation, replacingthe company's Indy product, which eventually will be discontinued.SGI's other desktop workstation is Indigo2 Impact, which occupiesa price point above O2.

While O2 stands at the low end of SGI's product line, its performanceis comparable to more powerful workstations that were cutting-edgejust a few months ago. The heart of O2 is a new subsystem interconnectarchitecture called a unified memory architecture (UMA). UMA dispenseswith the bus architecture used in SGI's earlier workstations infavor of a crossbar-like architecture often used in supercomputersto connect different input-output components on the motherboard.

Using a crossbar architecture to connect subsystem componentsavoids bottlenecks that can occur in a bus-based system, accordingto John Flynn, medical markets manager. SGI rival Sun Microsystemsalso converted to a crossbar interconnect architecture for thedevelopment of its Ultra microprocessor, unveiled last year (SCAN1/31/96).

Other advances in the O2 line include the following:

** Faster memory performance, with 2.1 GB/second of memorybandwidth, compared with 400 MB/second on the last generationof SGI's Indy workstations;

** Standard 32-bit true color that is double-buffered, a featurethat allows images to be generated on-screen more realistically;

** The ability to compress and decompress multiple streamsof JPEG, MPEG, and H.261 video data in real-time for simultaneouscine-loop playback;

** The ability to import and manipulate uncompressed videoin real-time to do such things as scan conversion of ultrasounddata; and

** A 1-GB/second image-processing unit that provides hardwareacceleration for commonly used image-processing operations.

The upshot of all this technology is that it allows cliniciansto perform functions such as real-time zoom, pan, and rotate ofimages larger than 4k x 4k, with hardware far less expensive thanwas previously required, according to Kevin Gorey, O2 productmanager.

"It allows you to do things that you could never havedone before at this price point," Gorey said. "Thissystem in hardware will allow you to do 3-D volume rendering ata rate that literally a year or two ago could have only been doneby (top-of-the-line) Reality Engine-class machines."

Silicon Graphics hopes that O2 will provide a breath of freshair for the company, which has stumbled recently. The vendor hasexperienced the departures of engineering talent, a product recallof its flagship MIPS R10000 processor, and slowing sales due tomarket anticipation of O2's debut (SCAN 10/9/96). The companylast week announced a first-quarter net loss of $22 million, surprisingindustry analysts.

At the same time, SGI's competitors are coveting its dominantposition in the 3-D segment. O2 should enable SGI to keep manyOEMs from switching their software to platforms from vendors likeSun and Hewlett-Packard.

Silicon Graphics executives admit that Indy, their previousentry-level workstation, simply didn't have the horsepower foradvanced 3-D applications. Like O2, it is priced at $6000, butat that price Indy buyers get 16 MB of RAM and 8-bit graphics,and none of the hardware acceleration found in O2. For the sameprice today, O2 buyers get 32-bit double-buffered graphics and32 MB of RAM. Silicon Graphics claims that O2 is 10 times fasterthan Indy for image processing.

Some of SGI's collaborators believe that the company has hitthe mark in its quest for cost-effective advanced 3-D image processing.Vital Images, a developer of 3-D medical imaging software, hasfound that its software runs much more quickly on O2, accordingto Andrew Weiss, company president. In fact, Vital Images builtits new Vitrea 3-D visualization workstation around the O2 line(see story, page 5).

O2 is shipping and is available in six configurations, startingat $5999 for an entry-level system with 32 MB of RAM, an R5000CPU, and a 1-GB hard disk. Other configurations come with morememory and an R10000 CPU. Silicon Graphics estimates that a usableconfiguration for medical imaging applications will start at about$8500, while a high-end O2 will probably be priced at around $18,000.