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Grass-roots effort pulls SGI toward Linux
By Deni Connor
Network World, 01/18/99
Silicon Graphics (SGI) is proud to talk about how well it supports Windows
NT, and likes to boast about the scalability and reliability of its Irix
operating system. But the technically savvy workstation and server vendor
has said little about Linux.
Meanwhile, programmers inside and outside the company have been banging
away, bringing the free, open source operating system to an array of SGI
server and workstation
So does SGI like Linux or not? Despite more than three weeks of inquiries
from Network World, the question remains unanswered.
SGI seems to be making all the right Linux moves, but the company is
reluctant to talk about them. In fact, SGI seems oddly defensive, and
sometimes ambivalent, about its Linux efforts.
For instance, late last year the computer company became a sponsoring member
of Linux International, a nonprofit association that works on the promotion
and growth of Linux. SGI wrote a press release about its membership, but
then tried to retract it after it was posted on Linux International's site
(www.li.org). The organization has refused to remove the SGI document from
When contacted about this, SGI officials said they had no official comment
on Linux involvement. One source, however, says the company did not want to
appear to be copying Sun, which made a big Linux splash in December when it
promised to port Linux to UltraSPARC.
After a series of follow-up calls, Network World spoke with Dave McAllister,
SGI's representative to Linux International. McAllister acknowledged the
existence of an engineering-led, SGI-sponsored Linux mailing list, whose
members have been porting Linux to different SGI machines for more than two
years. McAllister offered little else on SGI's interest in Linux or the
company's overall strategy.
SGI's server product line manager, Ben Passerelli, only added scant details
to McAllister's description of SGI's Linux activity.
SGI's official interest in Linux was short-lived - it peaked early and
seemingly waned quickly after. In summer 1996, the company hired an intern
to port Linux to SGI's Indy workstation. The intern, who also ported Linux
to Sun's SPARC, left soon after finishing the kernel part of the SGI/Linux
port. The company has not filled this Linux position.
A grass-roots effort within SGI has paid off. Volunteers have finished
porting Linux to SGI's Indy machine, and their attention has now swung to
other SGI devices, including SGI's newest box, the Visual Workstation, which
runs Windows NT Workstation software. Linux also runs on SGI's Origin200
The Linux mailing list, which is active today and counts SGI employees as
one-quarter of its members, grew out of the project porting Linux to
Indy. Having nearly completed the port on SGI's Indy, dubbed HardHat 5.1,
early in the summer of 1998, others on the list moved on to the SGI's Indigo
workstation, the Visual workstation and other units, including the Indy and
Indigo, which are not current-technology machines.
SGI, the silent partner in this deal, has aided this mailing list by
supplying a Web site (www.linux.sgi.com), hardware, documentation and
equipment, but many folks in corporate SGI don't know anything about it.
SGI's Passerelli confirms that Linux runs on various SGI machines, such as
its current Origin200 server, as well as its Visual Workstation, announced
last week. And without offering a strategy or official endorsement,
Passerelli praises the up-and-coming operating system. "We are looking at
Linux extremely seriously because in technical, government and Internet
space you hear a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for what's going on in the
open source community," Passerelli says. Servers amount to 50% of SGI's
"Stay tuned" is all SGI will officially say about Linux. Although further
details are not available, SGI's 64-bit desktop and servers, which will be
announced when Intel's Merced chip is complete, will be able to run Linux,
as well as Windows NT and Irix, Passerelli says.
Meanwhile, sources indicate that SGI is talking to Linux providers, such as
Red Hat Software, about supporting SGI hardware.
Linux is hardly as scalable as Irix, so don't expect to see SGI abandoning
Irix, says an unnamed source. But Linux may be faster, at least according to
the same source, who found that Linux is twice as fast as Irix on
Whether SGI will ever officially endorse Linux remains to be seen.
The company has worked for two and a half years with Microsoft on high-end
graphics, and a bold Linux pronouncement could jeopardize that relationship,
some observers say.