The First Quarter-Century

SGI Remembers 25 Years of Changing the World - and Looks Forward to the Next 25

Standing in what once was Building 20 of the SGI Mountain View campus, NASA's F. Ron Bailey reached back nearly 25 years to remember a defining moment in the earliest days of the company.

Bailey, founder and first division chief of the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility, who retired from NASA in 1995, recalled speaking with SGI co-founder Jim Clark about what SGI's first customer wanted from SGI's first workstation.

NASA was pushing for Clark to choose UNIX as the operating system for the new workstation. Bailey cited its open architecture and network-friendliness. He recalled Clark saying, "We have a potential customer who is really interested in VMS, and I'm not too sure about this UNIX stuff." Convincing Clark took some doing, said Bailey, though it helped that NASA was willing to buy 18 of the new machines with its first order. "Finally," he recalled, "we convinced him."

This remembrance came in a speech to some 500 SGI employees, customers, partners, directors and founders who gathered at the Silicon Valley Computer History Museum, the site of the company's 25th anniversary party. In his talk, Bailey traveled across the decades, tracing NASA's close collaboration with SGI as its products moved from graphics and visualization to high-performance compute and storage systems - all the way to the arrival that very morning of NASA's new 4,096-core SGI Altix ICE cluster. He described his belief that the collaboration has benefited not just each organization, but "the whole industry and this country."

All Smiles
The party brought many of SGI's founding executives and engineers back to the company they helped Clark create in 1982. Abbey Silverstone, Kurt Akeley, Herb Kuta, Marc Hannah and Dave Brown all stood to thunderous applause. Silverstone waved the company's bound articles of incorporation. They were all smiles, all happily bearing witness to what came from their decision to cast their lot in a long-ago venture built around something called the "Geometry Engine".

The "Geometry Engine" was the first specialized processor to accelerate the "inner loop" geometric computations needed to display images in three dimensions, and it touched off generation after generation of systems that helped the world see things it literally had never seen before.

No matter the solution - visualization systems, servers and clusters, scalable storage and data management, or professional services - SGI has always had a knack for attracting customers that strive for the unforgettable. The list of breakthroughs made by users of SGI solutions seems almost too extensive to believe. From Professor Stephen Hawking's search for answers about the origins of the universe, to the first fully digital design of a jumbo passenger jet, to eight straight years of Academy Award-winning special effects, the world has watched SGI's customers and users accelerate the forward progress of science, industry and entertainment for more than two decades.

Bo Ewald, SGI CEO, described the unique relationship the company shares with its customers by saying "The important achievements of our customers shows that SGI's persistent drive to enable historic innovation pays real-life dividends to people in every corner of the world."

Aggressive Path for Growth
Ewald reminded the hundreds who celebrated that night, that SGI still has work to do. The company is rebuilding, he said, focused on worldwide growth and on a mission to deliver performance computing and data management solutions for high-performance computing and high-performance business customers.

Essential to that mission is SGI's solution roadmap. Dr. Eng Lim Goh, SGI senior vice president and chief technical officer, escorted the audience beyond the company's technology origins to its current products and strategies. Dr. Goh discussed how SGI's current platforms are helping customers simplify the management of high-performance systems and growing data volumes with improved energy-efficiency and reliability. For instance, Dr. Goh showed how new Altix ICE systems reduce the complexity of cluster management by eliminating the complex network of cables and interconnects typically found in clustered computing systems, which can result in frequent troubleshooting of intermittent failures.

To compete favorably with commodity-only solution providers, SGI is developing technologies that extract high performance and throughput from cost-effective, industry-standard components. Among these is a tightly integrated and unified operating environment - known as Industrial Strength Linux Environment, or ISLE. Aimed at optimizing application and system efficiency, ISLE will provide users with a common framework for all Linux applications that is flexible enough to send parts of a single application - or even a single problem - to multiple platforms based on their suitability and availability. The idea: to optimize the use of every asset in the network environment.

The Next 25
That night in SGI's old Building 20, the nostalgia of the last quarter-century gave way to a vision for the next. The mood was celebratory, and though Ewald shared a joke about a glass of champagne, the most potent cocktail that evening was a bracing concoction of optimism and confidence.

And there was the feeling that SGI, like its very first customer, is back in the business of going places no one has ever been.