[Beowulf] SGI and Sun: In Memoriam

Gerry Creager gerry.creager at tamu.edu
Thu Apr 2 06:02:58 PDT 2009

While I really appreciate the elegy, the summation of this is: The 
hardware vendors we once knew have, or are, slowly doing themselves in. 
  The ones we're going to recognize in the foreseeable future are Intel, 
AMD and Freescale, plus a few others around the edges (Via, for 
instance), who learn to adapt and build acceptable chips; graphics 
vendors, assuming they're not eaten whole and then killed by bigger chip 
makers; and motherboard manufacturers (e.g., Supermicro) who are the 
integrators of the future.


Robert G. Brown wrote:
> On Wed, 1 Apr 2009, Kilian CAVALOTTI wrote:
>> On Wednesday 01 April 2009 13:58:22 John Hearns wrote:
>>> http://www.sgi.com/company_info/newsroom/press_releases/2009/april/rackable 
>>> .html
>>> Not an April Fools.
>> Whoa. That, and IBM eating Sun, the market is really shrinking...
> Hijacking the thread not to argue per se but to write an elegy...
> The market for high margin workstations and servers isn't just shrinking
> -- it is long, slow collapsing, continuing a process that has been
> inexorable and inevitable for just about exactly 20 years now.
> SGI has been a zombie for a decade -- they were a company whose original
> business plan evaporated out from under them as the cost of OTC graphics
> hardware and associated software library support plummeted from the
> "we're the only game in town" of the early 90's to the "My gaming PC
> comes with state of the art graphics by default" of today.  Their
> secondary business plan -- supercomputing -- was destroyed by (gulp!)
> us.  Yep, it's our fault.
> What are you going to buy, a $60,000 SGI 2x0 series refrigerator chassis
> outfitted with $25,000 MIPS daughterboards to the tune of $160K or 16
> Sparcstations that are twice as fast in aggregate and cover 16 desktops
> (this would be an early 90's decision).  Bear in mind that you can buy a
> sparcstation a year for the software maintenance cost alone of the 2x0
> series box, take your time...
> The construction of the original PPro-based PC/Linux cluster a few years
> later (1996) simply cut the cost of the standalone boxes in two (the P5
> based systems just didn't have good enough floating point to properly
> compete on peak even thought they did OK on aggregate) while SGI was
> still engaged in high margin sales and dreaming of -- something -- was
> then slow poison.  They never managed to reinvent themselves.  They
> couldn't, as long as they persisted as a high-margin sales outfit in a
> commodity sales world.  If they'd gone cheap and embraced their doom,
> they might have survived, but they continued to pursue an empty dream.
> Sun is an even sadder tale.  Sun had a brief, shining chance to own the
> Universe, to become Microsoft (and crush both Microsoft and IBM), to
> mostly crush the linux revolution before it got started (or at the very
> least to alter its trajectory into something entirely different).  In
> 1988 Sun released the Sun 386i -- I know, because I was one of the
> original owners.  This was way early in the lifetime of the PC.  The 386
> was the first Intel CPU that could operate in a flat memory model, and
> with an 80387 coprocessor (later combined on a single chip in the 486
> series and beyond) it had "respectable" numerical performance -- much
> better than the Sun 3, not as good as SGI/MIPS or Sparc.  The 20 MHz
> 386i Roadrunner was still way expensive -- mostly because of its 91 MB
> hard drive, its enormous 4 MB or 8 MB of memory, its hi-resolution frame
> buffer, its onboard Ethernet interface, and a custom motherboard with
> proprietary slots for the memory and frame buffer -- but that's not the
> point.
> The point is that Sun >>had a fully functional Intel Unix in 1988!<<
> Alas, Sun persisted in the blind view that PCs were never going to
> compete with Sparc, with MIPs, with DEC Ultrix boxes, with IBM AIX in
> the workstation world.  Even the Roadrunner was an afterthought,
> carefully priced to not compete with Sparc and the project was abandoned
> and killed in 1990 without actually releasing a 486i version.
> Not content with owning one Intel Unix, Sun acquired a second one that
> had failed to quite take off in the early 90's.  They had not only all
> of the technology and source for SunOS on Intel (including a lot of the
> requisite drivers) they had a second set of sources for Intel Unix on
> commodity systems with drivers for same.  SunOS supported two kinds of
> windowing (really three) -- Sunview, X11R3, and what was it called,
> Openview or the like that was basically >>display postscript<<.  Yep,
> think scalable fonts onscreen, basically macintosh technology instead of
> the #!@&^ unscalable pixel graphics in X that was then and continues to
> be now an incredible, unbelievable, pain in the pitootie every single
> bloody time screen resolution jumps a notch (he says typing on a
> 1920x1200 display wearing his reading glasses because the X fonts one
> pixel wide are now so faint and tiny as to be all but unreadable).
> Sun thus stood on the top of the mountain in 1990 -- the overwhelmingly
> dominant workstation manufacturer, with the world's hands down best Unix
> -- nobody who worked with a mix of the Unices then available would ever
> argue with this, as AIX sucked, Ultrix sucked less but still sucked (and
> the DEC workstations sucked), Irix sucked (although the SGI workstations
> still didn't suck), and then where do you go?  NeXT OS had potential but
> it was blown by Jobs (sorry) when he had to go and make its back end all
> proprietary and dysfunctional broken sort-of-Unix (die netinfo die).
> Motorola Unix never really got off the ground.  Apple's OS was a joke
> and only available on tiny little "toy" boxes at enormous relative cost.
> And then, off to the side, there was Microsoft and IBM.
> At this point the writing was oh-so-clearly on the wall.  The highest
> end Intel OTC systems were maybe 1/3 of the price of the mainline Sun
> Sparc boxes.  The latter still had an edge in price performance --
> seriously, right up to somewhere in the 1993-1995 range -- but for
>>> desktop workstation usage<< as opposed to raw computation the gap was
>>> closed<< by 1992 as the 486 really came of age and the inexorable
> progress of Moore's Law took its differential toll, ever shrinking the
> gap in raw performance.  After all, for a desktop workstation one
> doesn't, actually, need an enormously fast processor.  50 MHz is plenty
> (that's 2.5x as fast as my already perfectly adequate 386i, more if one
> accounts for faster memory and buses, more/cheaper memory, the emergence
> of faster disks and scsi cards for the PC).
> IBM and Microsoft were working on the infamous mix of Windows, NT, and
> OS/2.  Unknown to them all, a young student was working on his own
> version of Unix for the Intel OTC architecture (although if they'd known
> of it they would have scoffed, a silly thing to do given that >>all<< of
> the main players in the PC software world or Unix workstation software
> world got their start in metaphorical or literal garages).
> At >>any time<< from 1990 through to 1995, Sun could have taken over the
> world by simply releasing a fully supported version of SunOS for the x86
> family for $50.  That's all it would have taken.  I mean, what are you
> going to use?  NT?  OS/2?  Windows 3.x?  Or SunOS, especially if you
> throw in a DOS loader so that users can run their old PC games and Lotus
> spreadsheets until they buy the new SunOS versions of them.
> At that time all the open source software in the Universe was built on
> SunOS.  Who thought that the community could actually support an actual
> operating system and all of those device drivers?  Truthfully, it
>>> couldn't<< -- it took close to a decade before Linux was able to do it
> and it is still way too spotty on bleeding edge new hardware or hardware
> with a "proprietary" API and a linux-hostile manufacturer.  I, and many,
> many others, would have been >>thrilled<< to pay Sun $50, or even $100,
> for real Unix on cheap OTC Intel boxes, and with Sun's enormous
> marketing clout and an emerging Intel-based server market Microsoft,
> Santa Cruz, Novell, all of the dumb and proprietary networks -- they
> would have vanished like mist in the Sun.
> Sure, in five or six years this would have killed Sun's Sparc business
> (maybe -- it would have benefited too from the flood of software
> companies writing PORTABLE code for SUNOS that would compile across the
> two architectures) but >>nothing could save that<<.  This is something
> Sun never ever understood, right up into the 2000s.  However, Sun as a
> company would have survived virtually unchallenged and they might even
> have kept Sparc alive LONGER, as there is an actual point to having a
> high-end server architecture as long as there is software portability
> and compatibility across the hardware boundary.
> I remember telling Sun reps that this is what they should do in 1993, in
> 1995 (suggesting that they make then-new Slowaris of Evil die die die at
> the same time), and in 2002 at a roadmap talk at Duke.  By the latter,
> it was clear that Sun's roadmap was a road to nowhere, but try telling
> them that!  All I heard from them was that they were sitting on a bank
> of 6 or 7 billion dollars and had a plan; they were simply clueless as I
> pointed out that the cost/benefit of linux based servers and linux based
> commodity clusters and linux based workstations was an easy 3 to 1
> greater than their persistent, damnable, high margin sales.  Their reply
> was only that they'd "give" us Solaris for Intels as WE were educational
> users.  Clueless... and an easy decade too late.
> The big question is: Do the new owners "get it"?  IBM gets it with
> Linux, I think, and I myself will cheerfully buy IBM servers for places
> that need tier 1 hardware that just doesn't break.  IBM has a long,
> smoldering war going on with Microsoft (their OS/2 memory is long, long
> indeed).  Apple has actually drunk half of the kool-ade they should have
> drunk back in the early 90's (when they, too, could have taken over the
> world in so very many ways).  They're doing what Sun could have done in
> the 90's -- supporting a semi-proprietary close to commodity hardware
> platform by providing commercial support for the core OS only.  But it
> is a thin-margin Universe now as it has always been in the PC world, and
> IBM and Apple and all the rest of the big boys never learned to live
> lean on a consumer-driven diet.
> So let us all bid adieu to two more of the ancient giants, killed by
> their own lack of perception and market vision more than anything else,
> killed by a refusal to see the world as it is and adapt to it unstead of
> holding onto a broken dream of enormous profits not backed by the
> delivery of anything like competitive or comparable value as the world
> changed faster than they could.
>    rgb
>> -- 
>> Kilian
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> Robert G. Brown                           http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
> Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
> Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
> Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu
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Gerry Creager -- gerry.creager at tamu.edu
Texas Mesonet -- AATLT, Texas A&M University	
Cell: 979.229.5301 Office: 979.458.4020 FAX: 979.862.3983
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