SGI Workstations Advance NT’s Capabilities

Windows NT has been losing to Unix on the workstation front for some time. Microsoft Corp.’s workstation operating system traditionally has been incapable of running the heavy-duty, graphic-intensive applications that separate workstations from desktops.

When Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI, grabbed a lot of attention when it announced its 320 visual workstation, the future availability of the 540, and declared its entrance into the Windows NT market. The price tag for the 320 is less than $4,000, but more importantly, the system features hearty graphics capabilities, such as CAD/CAM, 3-D rendering, modeling, animation and video editing applications.

Analysts have said that SGI needed a Windows NT machine to turn its financial situation around, but the new box -- and a slew of third-party software released in conjunction with the systems -- brings greater implications to Windows NT Workstation than SGI’s survival.

"These machines are truly new to the NT market space. SGI added considerable value to visual computing without breaking compatibility requirements," says Pat Higbie, chairman and CEO of DataFocus Inc. (, maker of NuTcracker, the Unix/NT interoperability software that is bundled with SGI’s new workstation.

In addition to being new to the Windows NT arena, the system has come as a pleasant surprise to the industry. "Most of us thought that Silicon Graphics could never build an NT box this powerful until the availability of both Merced and Windows 2000," says Rob Enderle, senior analyst at Giga Information Group ( "Given the NT and Intel roots, this system is nothing short of amazing."

SGI worked with both Intel Corp. and Microsoft to beef up the Wintel platform for use as a workstation operating system.

Intel contributed the Xeon microprocessor, which is the company’s first CPU capable of competing with Unix chips. "In Xeon, Unix zealots finally saw a processor that can handle the kind of graphics applications traditionally reserved for Unix hardware," Higbie says. "And they know that will continue to improve with Merced."

Microsoft, for its part, refined Windows NT Workstation’s threading to increase the scalability. Threading allows the operating system to use more processors, so Windows NT Workstation can take advantage of dual- or quad-processor machines to enhance its capabilities for running workstation applications.

Third-party software such as the MKS Toolkit from Mortice Kern Systems Inc. (MKS, and DataFocus’ NuTcracker enable Windows NT to interoperate with Unix on these systems.

MKS provided SGI with a subset of Unix commands, part of the MKS Toolkit, that are embedded into the workstation to enable interoperability.

Bundled with the 320 and 540, NuTcracker enables both platforms to be used on one machine, and provides cross-platform access to other machines. Therefore, one machine can run both Unix and Windows NT, and seamlessly access applications from either platform simultaneously. Windows NT and Unix systems can also access each other.

"There is a lot to be gained from going to Windows, but the thought of losing mission-critical apps running on Unix is unacceptable to almost every large IT department," Higbie says. "Interoperability means that those Unix apps are still accessible via Windows, and vice versa."

With SGI’s machines, Windows NT Workstation can better compete with Unix in the low-end and midrange of the workstation space, much the same way it does in the server market. But there is still the high-end market niche where Unix wears the crown.

"Unless Microsoft destroys the franchise, this is a big step toward the goal of making NT the dominant workstation OS across all the market segments," Enderle says.