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Reviews

SGI 330 Visual Workstation Packs a Punch

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SGI 330 Visual Workstation for Linux


$6,000-$6,500


http://www.sgi.com/workstations/330

In a Nutshell


Rating: 5 Penguins


Pros:


  • Unparalleled 3D graphics performance for the price
  • No-nonsense driver and graphics library configuration with the supplied SGI Linux Pro Pack
  • Supports multiple distros


Cons:


  • Pricey
  • Limited off-the-shelf Linux OpenGL applications
  • Pro Pack only supports older Linux distributions at this time

Reviews/SGI

Specifications

CPU


  • Dual 1 GHz processors

RAM


  • 512 MB RAM

Hard Drive Space


  • 18.2 GB SCSI hard disk

Graphics


  • VR7 graphics processor

For many years, SGI (formerly Silicon Graphics Inc.) basically owned the high-end workstation market for systems used to create Hollywood-style Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and highly complex scientific simulations and modeling. If a movie special effect ever made you ask “How’d they do that?”, chances are good it was done on an SGI machine.

SGI has gone through many trials and tribulations over the last few years, mainly because their lightning-fast, ultra-proprietary MIPS RISC graphics powerhouses were so prohibitively expensive to purchase and support that nobody could afford them, thus affecting SGI’s bottom line.

More Bang for the Buck

After numerous dips in stock price, profit warnings, reorganizations, and executive departures, SGI has re-worked their product line to contain more modest computer workstation and server offerings. Their product line is now composed mostly of commodity hardware components and runs on Intel chips and PC-based OSes, such as Windows NT and Linux. Basically, their machines no longer cost both an arm and a leg.

SGI’s latest offering, the 330 Series Visual Workstation, combines their expertise in the high-performance workstation market with more affordable off-the-shelf components, albeit on the high end of “off-the-shelf.” Our test unit boasted twin 1 GHz Pentium III processors, 512 MB of 133 MHz ECC SDRAM, an onboard 16-bit sound chip, onboard Intel Pro 10/100 Ethernet and embedded twin-channel Adaptec 7899 Ultra-160 SCSI, with a Seagate 18.2 Ultra 160 10,000 RPM SCSI drive.

Pumped Up

To call the 330 a PC on steroids would be a serious oversimplification; this machine has been optimized for producing lightning-fast, super high-resolution 3D graphics, with no compromise. The onboard 64 MB DDR (Double Data Rate) SDRAM 4x AGP graphics card, branded as the VPro VR7, is a highly tweaked version of the nVIDIA high-end Quadro2 Pro 3D graphics processor. It takes full advantage of SGI’s OpenGL 1.2 3D graphics library and is capable of pumping out more than 31 million triangles per second and up to 1 Gigapixels per second. This is the type of performance you would expect from a machine being used to design vivid space battles in the next Star Wars movie.

The SGI 330 is not just the latest and greatest in buzzword graphics and PC hardware however. To pull it all together, the 330 runs an extremely tweaked Red Hat 6.2, Turbolinux 6.0, or SuSE 6.4 (support for other distributions and newer Linux versions is coming soon). We performed the installation by first installing the base-level Red Hat 6.2 and then the SGI Linux Pro Pack 1.3 for Visual Workstations.

Installation and Setup

The Pro Pack is an entire CD filled with SGI’s fully compliant OpenGL libraries, graphics drivers, XFree86 4.x, a tweaked SMP kernel, and OSS sound drivers. Fortunately, installation was much simpler that on a typical Linux system. There was no hassling with RPMs or installing packages manually. Just mount the CD, and a simple shell script installs everything for you. One reboot later and voila! You’ve got an instant 3D graphics powerhouse. We wish other big-name PC workstation manufacturers, with their so-called Linux-certified systems, would take the care that SGI does by providing an easy way to get all the drivers you need up and running. SGI clearly knows what they’re doing when it comes to Linux.

To test the Visual Workstation, we used SPEC’s (http://www.spec.org) ViewPerf graphics benchmark and the included SGI 3D demos. We were stunned with the fluidity and speed of the animated 3D models at such high resolutions (1600×1200) and deep color depths (24 and 32-bit). Performance figures varied greatly depending on what resolution and color depth we used, but we were very pleased with how well this unit compared with other manufacturers in the $6,500 (and higher) price range, given existing scores of graphics workstations that are currently disclosed by SPEC.

However, we were unable to see any evidence of performance improvement when we ran the benchmark using both Pentium III processors. This was probably because the benchmark does not completely exploit multiprocessors on Linux 2.2.x systems. We expect this SMP performance issue to clear up considerably when the 2.4.x kernel-based distributions arrive in the second or third quarter of 2001.

Benchmarks aside, unless you roll your own OpenGL applications in a scientific environment or are perverse enough to use a $6,500 graphics workstation for playing Quake, there are few off-the-shelf OpenGL applications capable of exploiting this hardware. If you want to give it a shot, Blender (http://www.blender.nl, reviewed in the June 2000 issue of Linux Magazine and available http://www.linux-mag.com/2000-06/pr_blender_01.html) and a couple of others can be found on Freshmeat (http://freshmeat.net/appindex/X11/Modelling.html).

Much of this will change, however, when SGI’s Alias/Wavefront subsidiary (http://www.aliaswavefront.com) releases the Linux version of MAYA 3.0, the entertainment industry 3D graphics workhorse, currently in late beta, in the second quarter of 2001. Avid Technology is currently porting SoftImage’s (http://www.softimage.com) next-generation 3D graphics animation suite, codenamed “Sumatra,” to Linux and has already released version 4.4 of their TOONZ 2D cell animation packages for Linux.

The Last Word

In terms of hardware and software integration, the SGI 330 is a shining example of what every Linux-compliant PC workstation vendor should supply. However, in this case, stellar Linux integration carries a hefty price tag. Still, those of us on the bottom of the food chain, with our roll-your-own white-box Linux PCs, can always dream of graphics nirvana.

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