SGI Returns to Visual Roots

By John E. West

October 30, 2008

This week SGI has announced a new product portfolio that signifies the company’s return to their computer graphics roots. The VUE family of applications is a new lineup of software and services that the company says will change the way you create, distribute and use visual information.SGI RealityCenter
Silicon Graphics, Inc., the company today known as SGI, wasn’t just a computer graphics company: in the mid 80s and early 90s, they were the computer graphics company. SGI invented many of the fundamental hardware technologies and software approaches that grew into the modern graphics card and GPU business. As graphics cards slipped into the commodity market, driven by the massive popularity of computer gaming, SGI found itself in the position of trying to sell graphics workstations for tens of thousands of dollars in a market that could get the same performance from a sub-$1,000 card. By 2005 they had effectively abandoned the graphics business to focus on high performance computing.

SGI did manage to preserve at least some of that graphics expertise deep in the bowels of the company. Soon after Bo Ewald’s return to the company as CEO in April of last year, he was out in public talking about the company’s eventual return to graphics.

In fact, Ewald had already asked Robert Pette, currently vice president of the Silicon Graphics Visualization Group at SGI, but then in charge of professional services for the company, to revaluate the company’s decision to move away from its graphics roots under the leadership of Dennis McKenna and Bob Bishop. During those years Pette says that SGI managed to keep the graphics flame alive at the company within the professional services organization, building custom reality centers for well-heeled clients around the world.

SGI has identified three problems that they feel users face with respect to managing and understanding large amounts of data. In the scientific space, computational models are larger and more complex. The availability of larger supercomputers means that, while yesterday’s large model might have been solved with a 100,000 triangle mesh, today that mesh could well be over 1 billion triangles, and that number will continue to grow. Users need visualization solutions that will scale to these very large sizes.

Second, large data consumers are often a part of global teams, both in scientific and industrial computing organizations, and in organizations that aren’t traditionally compute-intensive but are increasingly data driven — for example, the media industry. Users in these organizations are struggling to enable true collaboration over long distances, but are challenged to work together when everyone cannot simply huddle around the monitor and figure out what’s going on.

Finally, SGI points to information overload as a characteristic of our society, pointing to studies like the one from IDC last year, which estimated the amount of digital data created in 2006 to be 161 exabytes. The same study estimated the amount of digital data would grow to 988 exabytes by 2010, with only 600 exabytes of storage available worldwide. If these numbers are even in the ballpark, we’ll have to do a lot of analysis on the fly, making decisions and losing the original data with tools built to support large scale streams of transient data.
SGI F1 VUE
SGI sees a market opportunity in all of this data and, according to Pette, the company’s goal is to enable customers to “visualize anything anywhere, at any time, on any device.” Rather than trying to simply recreate their hardware past, they are focusing on the software side of the solution with this latest offering, the Visual User Experience, or VUE, lineup of software.

The centerpiece of the VUE system is RemoteVUE, a piece of software designed to go out and collect source pixels from video sources or applications running on remote computers, centralize them, and then feed them back out to clients over the network. Pixels are converted to packets via a piece of software that runs on remote machines running applications of interest, with no changes necessary to those applications.

RemoteVUE acts like a big software multiplexor, ingesting source streams of pixels and transforming them to a format appropriate for a particular user’s endpoint device. A user watching a high definition NBA feed on a VUE-connected high-def display needs all those pixels, but another user watching the same feed at the same time on his BlackBerry needs far fewer pixels, and probably needs a highly compressed feed as well to compensate for the slower network connection. RemoteVUE handles all the mixing and matching of sources and displays, sending just what is needed for each client.

The legacy of RemoteVUE is SGI’s Vizserver application, the remote visualization solution from several years ago. That solution was plagued with problems and never achieved broad use. Pette says that SGI only used pieces of that software in the new product, and that major portions have been rewritten to support better encryption, compression and stream encoding algorithms. According to Pette,”RemoteVUE picks up where Vizserver left off.”

While RemoteVUE is the centerpiece of the VUE system, FusionVUE is the centerpiece of the user experience. FusionVUE creates a three dimensional environment into which any visual stream of data available to the user can be combined to create an information synthesis environment. I’ve heard a moderately compelling argument for this in which multiple aspects of a computational simulation are brought together into one VUEspace for team collaboration. For example, a mechanical simulation running on the East Coast, and a thermodynamic simulation running in Europe can be brought into one space and then distributed to the teams on both sides of the Atlantic, enabling everyone to see the whole picture.

The most compelling demonstrations I’ve seen, however, are command-and-control types of applications. The canonical example of this is the intelligence analyst hunched in front of an expansive display looking at a virtual representation of some region of the world dotted with live video feeds, streams of intelligence data, and conventional news sources that, together, convey a deeper understanding of some dire set of circumstances about to unfold. I got to see a more fun example a couple of weeks ago when an SGI engineer showed me a VUEspace built around an NBA court. The VUEspace placed live video feeds on virtual televisions on the court showing what the cameras at those locations were seeing of the game. Just clicking on any of those cameras would show you a full screen view of the action from that perspective. With the right support on the application end (added via the VUE API), users can even interact with the applications in the FusionVUE environment just as though they were running natively on their own desktop.

A key selling point of FusionVUE is meant to be that the system provides an interface simple enough for most people to go in and, with minimal training, build analysis scenarios that bring together as many feeds as they need in an intuitive environment of their own creation. My feeling from early experiences with the software is that it is still early days for FusionVUE, and that it will take the company a few more iterations to get to that point.

Pette says that a key drawback of the modern crop of GPUs is that the amount of memory available to them makes rendering of large datasets slow, and although memory on GPUs will undoubtedly continue to increase, so too will the size of data being analyzed. SGI’s solution to this is two pieces of software, PowerVUE and SoftVUE, both aimed at software rendering support on the CPU. SGI feels that, as the number of cores in CPUs continue to increase, the larger memory available to CPUs and the elimination of bus traffic needed to get data back and forth from a graphics card will make CPUs a much more attractive option for the real-time rendering of large data.

PowerVUE and SoftVUE aren’t quite as far along as other pieces of the VUE lineup, but when complete will support software rendering on large-scale servers (think Altix) and desktop machines. This approach also happens to fit nicely into the business model of one of SGI’s key partners, Intel, with whom SGI is collaborating on bringing the entire VUE lineup to market. The fifth component of the lineup, EventVUE, is mentioned in the release as “giving decision-makers a 360-degree view of complex events while avoiding information overload,” but this particular piece is not being discussed at this time. RemoteVUE is expected before the end of this year, with FusionVUE expected for release in the first quarter of 2009. Both SoftVUE and PowerVUE are expected in the second quarter of next year.

How will SGI bring VUE to market? Pette says that he’d like to see a broad path to market for the entire VUE suite through a combination of partners and OEMs, who would integrate the technology in everything from conference room systems to complex command and control environments. SGI is also exploring a direct sales path for parts of the suite, but getting picked by an appliance vendor who can move large amounts of product while feeding licensing fees back to SGI would clearly be a home run for the company, and it’s easy to guess that’s the preferred road to market here.

What to make of SGI’s grab for a piece of its old pixellated glory?

Computer graphics hardware has continued to develop rapidly on the desktop, and both major chip vendors have incorporated GPUs into their business strategy going forward. SGI is both relying on these advances and, through its PowerVUE and SoftVUE investments, developing insurance against the future collapse of the specialized graphics processor back into the CPU.

Companies have been trying to share pixels from one place to another for decades, and nothing (from shared X-displays to Vizserver itself to PC-based video chat) has caught on in a significant way. I think that a key reason for the slow uptake is that the reason people want to share pixels — to work, play, or interact naturally with someone not local to them — is fundamentally hard when the experience is mediated by a computer. This fact, combined with the mechanical difficulties that arise with today’s still-clunky solutions, has slowed the acceptance of remote collaboration solutions.

Using VUE to overcome these mechanical hurdles might allow SGI to bring enough new, creative people into the space that the collaboration-at-a-distance problem can finally be solved. This would lead to a windfall for the company selling the pieces that finally make good on the promise of cooperation at a distance.

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!

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 13), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue’s max capacity and doubling 2016 attendee numbers), the one Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Machine Learning at HPC User Forum: Drilling into Specific Use Cases

September 22, 2017

The 66th HPC User Forum held September 5-7, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the elegant and historic Pfister Hotel, highlighting the 1893 Victorian décor and art of “The Grand Hotel Of The West,” contrasted nicely with Read more…

By Arno Kolster

Google Cloud Makes Good on Promise to Add Nvidia P100 GPUs

September 21, 2017

Google has taken down the notice on its cloud platform website that says Nvidia Tesla P100s are “coming soon.” That's because the search giant has announced the beta launch of the high-end P100 Nvidia Tesla GPUs on t Read more…

By George Leopold

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

HPE Prepares Customers for Success with the HPC Software Portfolio

High performance computing (HPC) software is key to harnessing the full power of HPC environments. Development and management tools enable IT departments to streamline installation and maintenance of their systems as well as create, optimize, and run their HPC applications. Read more…

Cray Wins $48M Supercomputer Contract from KISTI

September 21, 2017

It was a good day for Cray which won a $48 million contract from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information (KISTI) for a 128-rack CS500 cluster supercomputer. The new system, equipped with Intel Xeon Scal Read more…

By John Russell

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 13), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Machine Learning at HPC User Forum: Drilling into Specific Use Cases

September 22, 2017

The 66th HPC User Forum held September 5-7, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the elegant and historic Pfister Hotel, highlighting the 1893 Victorian décor and art o Read more…

By Arno Kolster

Stanford University and UberCloud Achieve Breakthrough in Living Heart Simulations

September 21, 2017

Cardiac arrhythmia can be an undesirable and potentially lethal side effect of drugs. During this condition, the electrical activity of the heart turns chaotic, Read more…

By Wolfgang Gentzsch, UberCloud, and Francisco Sahli, Stanford University

PNNL’s Center for Advanced Tech Evaluation Seeks Wider HPC Community Ties

September 21, 2017

Two years ago the Department of Energy established the Center for Advanced Technology Evaluation (CENATE) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). CENAT Read more…

By John Russell

Exascale Computing Project Names Doug Kothe as Director

September 20, 2017

The Department of Energy’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP) has named Doug Kothe as its new director effective October 1. He replaces Paul Messina, who is stepping down after two years to return to Argonne National Laboratory. Kothe is a 32-year veteran of DOE’s National Laboratory System. Read more…

Takeaways from the Milwaukee HPC User Forum

September 19, 2017

Milwaukee’s elegant Pfister Hotel hosted approximately 100 attendees for the 66th HPC User Forum (September 5-7, 2017). In the original home city of Pabst Blu Read more…

By Merle Giles

Kathy Yelick Charts the Promise and Progress of Exascale Science

September 15, 2017

On Friday, Sept. 8, Kathy Yelick of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the keynote address on “Breakthrough Science at the Exascale” at the ACM Europe Conference in Barcelona. In conjunction with her presentation, Yelick agreed to a short Q&A discussion with HPCwire. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

DARPA Pledges Another $300 Million for Post-Moore’s Readiness

September 14, 2017

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a giant funding effort to ensure the United States can sustain the pace of electronic innovation vital to both a flourishing economy and a secure military. Under the banner of the Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI), some $500-$800 million will be invested in post-Moore’s Law technologies. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Reinders: “AVX-512 May Be a Hidden Gem” in Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

June 29, 2017

Imagine if we could use vector processing on something other than just floating point problems.  Today, GPUs and CPUs work tirelessly to accelerate algorithms Read more…

By James Reinders

NERSC Scales Scientific Deep Learning to 15 Petaflops

August 28, 2017

A collaborative effort between Intel, NERSC and Stanford has delivered the first 15-petaflops deep learning software running on HPC platforms and is, according Read more…

By Rob Farber

Oracle Layoffs Reportedly Hit SPARC and Solaris Hard

September 7, 2017

Oracle’s latest layoffs have many wondering if this is the end of the line for the SPARC processor and Solaris OS development. As reported by multiple sources Read more…

By John Russell

Six Exascale PathForward Vendors Selected; DoE Providing $258M

June 15, 2017

The much-anticipated PathForward awards for hardware R&D in support of the Exascale Computing Project were announced today with six vendors selected – AMD Read more…

By John Russell

Top500 Results: Latest List Trends and What’s in Store

June 19, 2017

Greetings from Frankfurt and the 2017 International Supercomputing Conference where the latest Top500 list has just been revealed. Although there were no major Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Clears Path to 5nm with Silicon Nanosheets

June 5, 2017

Two years since announcing the industry’s first 7nm node test chip, IBM and its research alliance partners GlobalFoundries and Samsung have developed a proces Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Graphcore Readies Launch of 16nm Colossus-IPU Chip

July 20, 2017

A second $30 million funding round for U.K. AI chip developer Graphcore sets up the company to go to market with its “intelligent processing unit” (IPU) in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Releases Deeplearn.js to Further Democratize Machine Learning

August 17, 2017

Spreading the use of machine learning tools is one of the goals of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative, which was introduced in early July. Last w Read more…

By John Russell

Russian Researchers Claim First Quantum-Safe Blockchain

May 25, 2017

The Russian Quantum Center today announced it has overcome the threat of quantum cryptography by creating the first quantum-safe blockchain, securing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, along with classified government communications and other sensitive digital transfers. Read more…

By Doug Black

EU Funds 20 Million Euro ARM+FPGA Exascale Project

September 7, 2017

At the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre on Wednesday (Sept. 6), 16 partners gathered to launch the EuroEXA project, which invests €20 million over three-and-a-half years into exascale-focused research and development. Led by the Horizon 2020 program, EuroEXA picks up the banner of a triad of partner projects — ExaNeSt, EcoScale and ExaNoDe — building on their work... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Debuts TPU v2 and will Add to Google Cloud

May 25, 2017

Not long after stirring attention in the deep learning/AI community by revealing the details of its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), Google last week announced the Read more…

By John Russell

Amazon Debuts New AMD-based GPU Instances for Graphics Acceleration

September 12, 2017

Last week Amazon Web Services (AWS) streaming service, AppStream 2.0, introduced a new GPU instance called Graphics Design intended to accelerate graphics. The Read more…

By John Russell

Cray Moves to Acquire the Seagate ClusterStor Line

July 28, 2017

This week Cray announced that it is picking up Seagate's ClusterStor HPC storage array business for an undisclosed sum. "In short we're effectively transitioning the bulk of the ClusterStor product line to Cray," said CEO Peter Ungaro. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Advances Web-based Quantum Programming

September 5, 2017

IBM Research is pairing its Jupyter-based Data Science Experience notebook environment with its cloud-based quantum computer, IBM Q, in hopes of encouraging a new class of entrepreneurial user to solve intractable problems that even exceed the capabilities of the best AI systems. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This