Back to the Future: SGI Returns to Visualization

By John E. West

April 11, 2008

In the 1980s and early 1990s, if you were doing anything serious in computer graphics you were doing it with SGI gear. Then a series of strategic missteps and the emergence of incredibly powerful, cheap graphics cards for PCs made the company’s graphics lines irrelevant, and for nearly a decade they’ve survived as a server company. The SGI Virtu line announced this week steers SGI back into graphics for what it says is the long haul. But is there a market left to capture?

I spoke to Tom Reed, SGI’s Director of Visualization, about the new offering. Tom’s take on the Virtu announcement is that the HPC market is finally ready to once again make serious investments in visualization. “For a long time there has been a lot of focus [in HPC] on getting clusters right. Now we’ve reach a spot were we’re on good footing with clusters and we can start addressing other issues in the high performance ecosystem.” He added, “Visualization is the long pole in the performance computing tent now.”

SGI has made wobbles in and out of the graphics market since the end of their market dominance around the start of this decade, but those efforts have never born fruit. Soon after Bo Ewald returned to the CEO post at SGI he started making public comments about SGI’s return to high end graphics. On September 27 last year he remarked to a packed room at IDC’s HPC User Forum, “We will be back in the visual supercomputing business,” and then he added this quotable quote, “It was really stupid for the company to stop doing visualization types of things.”

This week the company confirmed that Bo wasn’t just talking off script at public events. Although the company’s press release on Tuesday focused on the Virtu VN200 graphics server, the offering also includes a graphics workstation — the Virtu VS series — and the Wide Area Visual Environment, or WAVE, to support the remote visualization needs of many customer sites.

First, the VN200. Built around two quad-core Xeons, the VN200 node is the server side of the SGI visual supercomputing equation. These nodes can run SLES, Red Hat, or Windows (as can the VS), and up to five VN200 nodes can be integrated in a single 4U enclosure. Multiple enclosures can be racked together, and the whole thing can be clustered right into your Altix big iron. Graphics are provided by NVIDIA Quadro FX graphics cards, one to a node.

This integration of compute and visualization gear is a key driver in SGI’s Virtu strategy. Again according to Reed, “We are ready to re-attach visualization back to computing… to bring visualization back as an integral part of the computing experience.” Despite the goal, this is still version 1.0 of the offering. The Virtu nodes don’t have NUMAlink capability, so they don’t share memory with each other or with the processors in the Altix side of the system. The VN200 is really a clustered graphics solution, all the way down to the node, and data for any cooperative rendering that’s done beyond the cores available in a node has to be managed explicitly using distributed memory semantics. Reed did indicate that they are looking to extend the shared memory model to Virtu nodes in the future.

This will be an important differentiator in a space where SGI is competing for graphics cluster business with companies like GraphStream, Verari, HP, and others, all of whom are essentially constructing solutions out of the same parts. Right now SGI says that a big part of their value add in the VN is that they have created a fully integrated solution, where drivers for the graphics cards and the IB ports don’t interfere with each other and everything “just works,” and VN200 nodes can be integrated with the HPC nodes generating the data.

While SGI hopes its customers start buying VN nodes with all of their Altix gear, the VN customer doesn’t have to integrate it with an Altix setup, or even have an Altix at all. VN nodes work just fine as the standalone centerpiece of an enterprise visualization solution.

Another area where improvements will be critical for product differentiation is in the rendering pipeline itself. According to Reed, SGI is going to add in some of VizServer’s collaboration technologies, strengthening the remote and collaborative aspects of the offering.

Though not mentioned in the information released for the launch, if you look at the Virtu offering you’ll notice that SGI has added a visual workstation to it’s lineup, the Virtu VS line of machines. Reed describes the VS line as important only for a few niche customers in some fairly specialized situations, and not a product they expect to focus on for most customers. According to him, “SGI is really not back in the [general purpose] workstation business. These systems are used almost exclusively as platforms for building visualization solutions for customers who need four or more graphics pipes in a single system (driving 4K projection systems, collaborative team rooms, etc).”

I was interested to know whether SGI is actually making this new Virtu gear. According to Reed, both the VS and the VN are manufactured outside of SGI, though he declined to disclose who those partners were. A source close to the HPC industry in Austin, Texas, identified one of the VS manufacturers as BOXX Technologies, an Austin-based company that specializes in making, according to the company’s web site, “high-performance computing platforms for Visual Effects (VFX) professionals.”

According to the press release VN nodes start at $10,575; pricing for the VS units wasn’t available for this story. They don’t have customers to talk with the press yet, but Reed reports that there are at least three VN200 systems being beta tested by customers.

So, nearly a decade after SGI lost or sold much of its critical IP (google for the NVIDIA patent bargain and the Microsoft IP sale), they are trying to get back into what it calls the visual supercomputing business. Right now their offering appears to be incremental — commodity-based graphics capabilities in clusters, and commodity-based graphics in workstations, with some software to glue it all together. Because of who they are, they are likely to attract some customer interest on the basis of their heritage. In fact, the press release mentions SGI’s graphics legacy numerous times.

If they want to recapture the visual supercomputing business this is a reasonable first step. But it’s not enough to do more than get people’s attention.

The hard problem is that visual supercomputing really doesn’t exist as a distinct market anymore, thanks largely to the success of the commodity video card business. In order to precipitate this market back out of the commodity graphics solution it has dissolved into, the company needs to focus hard on leveraging the features that make its computational gear unique while layering on strong, value added visualization-specific features for petascale datasets. They need to create a graphics offering that is unique, and gives users something they cannot get by simply stitching together free software and gear they can buy anywhere.

SGI is still positioned to do this. There is a lot of valuable IP that has remained with the company, in products like Vizserver and others, that they can bring to the challenges we are facing today in analysis of large data. Tom Reed is passionate when he talks about SGI’s commitment to long term leadership in visualization, with this first step creating a platform for SGI to innovate on with new advances in data management and fundamental approaches to data visualization.

This is SGI, and this is an industry that they once dominated. I believe that if anyone can do it, they can.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Q&A with Altair CEO James Scapa, an HPCwire Person to Watch in 2021

May 14, 2021

Chairman, CEO and co-founder of Altair James R. Scapa closed several acquisitions for the company in 2020, including the purchase and integration of Univa and Ellexus. Scapa founded Altair more than 35 years ago with two Read more…

HLRS HPC Helps to Model Muscle Movements

May 13, 2021

The growing scale of HPC is allowing simulation of more and more complex systems at greater detail than ever before, particularly in the biological research spheres. Now, researchers at the University of Stuttgart are le Read more…

Behind the Met Office’s Procurement of a Billion-Dollar Microsoft System

May 13, 2021

The UK’s national weather service, the Met Office, caused shockwaves of curiosity a few weeks ago when it formally announced that its forthcoming billion-dollar supercomputer – expected to be the most powerful weather and climate-focused supercomputer in the world when it launches in 2022... Read more…

AMD, GlobalFoundries Commit to $1.6 Billion Wafer Supply Deal

May 13, 2021

AMD plans to purchase $1.6 billion worth of wafers from GlobalFoundries in the 2022 to 2024 timeframe, the chipmaker revealed today (May 13) in an SEC filing. In the face of global semiconductor shortages and record-high demand, AMD is renegotiating its Wafer Supply Agreement and bumping up capacity. Read more…

Hyperion Offers Snapshot of Quantum Computing Market

May 13, 2021

The nascent quantum computer (QC) market will grow 27 percent annually (CAGR) reaching $830 million in 2024 according to an update provided today by analyst firm Hyperion Research at the HPC User Forum being held this we Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

Numerical weather prediction on AWS Graviton2

The Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model is a numerical weather prediction (NWP) system designed to serve both atmospheric research and operational forecasting needs. Read more…

Hyperion: HPC Server Market Ekes 1 Percent Gain in 2020, Storage Poised for ‘Tipping Point’

May 12, 2021

The HPC User Forum meeting taking place virtually this week (May 11-13) kicked off with Hyperion Research’s market update, covering the 2020 period. Although the HPC server market had been facing a 6.7 percent COVID-re Read more…

Behind the Met Office’s Procurement of a Billion-Dollar Microsoft System

May 13, 2021

The UK’s national weather service, the Met Office, caused shockwaves of curiosity a few weeks ago when it formally announced that its forthcoming billion-dollar supercomputer – expected to be the most powerful weather and climate-focused supercomputer in the world when it launches in 2022... Read more…

AMD, GlobalFoundries Commit to $1.6 Billion Wafer Supply Deal

May 13, 2021

AMD plans to purchase $1.6 billion worth of wafers from GlobalFoundries in the 2022 to 2024 timeframe, the chipmaker revealed today (May 13) in an SEC filing. In the face of global semiconductor shortages and record-high demand, AMD is renegotiating its Wafer Supply Agreement and bumping up capacity. Read more…

Hyperion Offers Snapshot of Quantum Computing Market

May 13, 2021

The nascent quantum computer (QC) market will grow 27 percent annually (CAGR) reaching $830 million in 2024 according to an update provided today by analyst fir Read more…

Hyperion: HPC Server Market Ekes 1 Percent Gain in 2020, Storage Poised for ‘Tipping Point’

May 12, 2021

The HPC User Forum meeting taking place virtually this week (May 11-13) kicked off with Hyperion Research’s market update, covering the 2020 period. Although Read more…

IBM Debuts Qiskit Runtime for Quantum Computing; Reports Dramatic Speed-up

May 11, 2021

In conjunction with its virtual Think event, IBM today introduced an enhanced Qiskit Runtime Software for quantum computing, which it says demonstrated 120x spe Read more…

AMD Chipmaker TSMC to Use AMD Chips for Chipmaking

May 8, 2021

TSMC has tapped AMD to support its major manufacturing and R&D workloads. AMD will provide its Epyc Rome 7702P CPUs – with 64 cores operating at a base cl Read more…

Fast Pass Through (Some of) the Quantum Landscape with ORNL’s Raphael Pooser

May 7, 2021

In a rather remarkable way, and despite the frequent hype, the behind-the-scenes work of developing quantum computing has dramatically accelerated in the past f Read more…

IBM Research Debuts 2nm Test Chip with 50 Billion Transistors

May 6, 2021

IBM Research today announced the successful prototyping of the world's first 2 nanometer chip, fabricated with silicon nanosheet technology on a standard 300mm Read more…

AMD Chipmaker TSMC to Use AMD Chips for Chipmaking

May 8, 2021

TSMC has tapped AMD to support its major manufacturing and R&D workloads. AMD will provide its Epyc Rome 7702P CPUs – with 64 cores operating at a base cl Read more…

Intel Launches 10nm ‘Ice Lake’ Datacenter CPU with Up to 40 Cores

April 6, 2021

The wait is over. Today Intel officially launched its 10nm datacenter CPU, the third-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processor, codenamed Ice Lake. With up to 40 Read more…

Julia Update: Adoption Keeps Climbing; Is It a Python Challenger?

January 13, 2021

The rapid adoption of Julia, the open source, high level programing language with roots at MIT, shows no sign of slowing according to data from Julialang.org. I Read more…

CERN Is Betting Big on Exascale

April 1, 2021

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) involves 23 countries, 15,000 researchers, billions of dollars a year, and the biggest machine in the worl Read more…

HPE Launches Storage Line Loaded with IBM’s Spectrum Scale File System

April 6, 2021

HPE today launched a new family of storage solutions bundled with IBM’s Spectrum Scale Erasure Code Edition parallel file system (description below) and featu Read more…

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

Saudi Aramco Unveils Dammam 7, Its New Top Ten Supercomputer

January 21, 2021

By revenue, oil and gas giant Saudi Aramco is one of the largest companies in the world, and it has historically employed commensurate amounts of supercomputing Read more…

Quantum Computer Start-up IonQ Plans IPO via SPAC

March 8, 2021

IonQ, a Maryland-based quantum computing start-up working with ion trap technology, plans to go public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) merger a Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

AMD Launches Epyc ‘Milan’ with 19 SKUs for HPC, Enterprise and Hyperscale

March 15, 2021

At a virtual launch event held today (Monday), AMD revealed its third-generation Epyc “Milan” CPU lineup: a set of 19 SKUs -- including the flagship 64-core, 280-watt 7763 part --  aimed at HPC, enterprise and cloud workloads. Notably, the third-gen Epyc Milan chips achieve 19 percent... Read more…

Can Deep Learning Replace Numerical Weather Prediction?

March 3, 2021

Numerical weather prediction (NWP) is a mainstay of supercomputing. Some of the first applications of the first supercomputers dealt with climate modeling, and Read more…

Livermore’s El Capitan Supercomputer to Debut HPE ‘Rabbit’ Near Node Local Storage

February 18, 2021

A near node local storage innovation called Rabbit factored heavily into Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s decision to select Cray’s proposal for its CORAL-2 machine, the lab’s first exascale-class supercomputer, El Capitan. Details of this new storage technology were revealed... Read more…

African Supercomputing Center Inaugurates ‘Toubkal,’ Most Powerful Supercomputer on the Continent

February 25, 2021

Historically, Africa hasn’t exactly been synonymous with supercomputing. There are only a handful of supercomputers on the continent, with few ranking on the Read more…

GTC21: Nvidia Launches cuQuantum; Dips a Toe in Quantum Computing

April 13, 2021

Yesterday Nvidia officially dipped a toe into quantum computing with the launch of cuQuantum SDK, a development platform for simulating quantum circuits on GPU-accelerated systems. As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang emphasized in his keynote, Nvidia doesn’t plan to build... Read more…

New Deep Learning Algorithm Solves Rubik’s Cube

July 25, 2018

Solving (and attempting to solve) Rubik’s Cube has delighted millions of puzzle lovers since 1974 when the cube was invented by Hungarian sculptor and archite Read more…

The History of Supercomputing vs. COVID-19

March 9, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a greater challenge to the high-performance computing community than any before. HPCwire's coverage of the supercomputing response t Read more…

Microsoft to Provide World’s Most Powerful Weather & Climate Supercomputer for UK’s Met Office

April 22, 2021

More than 14 months ago, the UK government announced plans to invest £1.2 billion ($1.56 billion) into weather and climate supercomputing, including procuremen Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire