With fun and games the big news at Silicon Graphics Inc these days, it’s perhaps no surprise that chief executive Ed McCracken believes the entertainment industry will pick up much of the slack in defence industry spending as a result of the so-called peace dividend. However, McCracken anticipates entertainment and consumer electronics industries will not only take up the slack, but will drive the computer industry for the next 10 or 20 years. The technology that the industry spawns, he argues, will feed back into mainstream commercial computing environments. One of Silicon Graphics’s goals therefore, is to transform the R series RISC architecture of its MIPS Technologies Inc unit into the MIPS Multimedia architecture, says McCracken. In tooling up for this world, the CPU environment, he says, should include the ability to provide graphics, digital video and audio as standard, alongside normal text and numerical processing.
Silicon Graphics has organised its Challenge and Power Challenge server operations into three divisions in readiness for its expected entry into the mainstream commercial environment. While its high-end graphics, multimedia and information server systems will take on distinctive characteristics, McCracken says that media server technology, destined for its cable television partners like Time Warner Inc, with its emphasis on input-output, real-time and interactive two-way capabilities is by far the most difficult type of computing to do at the moment. The cultural challenge, he says, is to improve system performance – input-output, access rates, CPU speed and the like – with every new box, as well as providing innovative new technologies for emerging markets. To innovate at the system level you have to innovate at the CPU level. Firms can’t even start to think about doing these kinds of things unless they own a CPU architecture, McCracken says – you’re deluding yourself if you think you can. He points to the fact that there are three times as many engineers working on the MIPS CPU set now than there were when Silicon Graphics bought the company back in 1991. Indeed, with eight new managers on board – including IBM Corp’s PowerPC architect Tom Whiteside installed at the helm and development funding from Japanese partners NEC Corp and Toshiba Corp, McCracken is keen to stress the stability of the MIPS enterprise after its rather leaky beginnings under Silicon Graphics. He admits Silicon Graphics hasn’t won any new partners for MIPS, but says it hasn’t lost any either. Silicon Graphics’s latest round of partnerships with the likes of Nintendo Co and Time Warner will pull these out of the wood, he believes. However, McCracken observes, simply owning an architecture isn’t enough to guarantee success. Even some of those that do have their own CPU family have had their problems. Sun Microsystems Inc, he argues, has forfeited much of the lead it once had in CPU and system performance to the particular requirements associated with its pursuit of the commercial market. As far as other Unix matters go, McCracken says he wouldn’t want there ever to be one single Unix implementation, one single application binary interface definition: Unix might as well be Windows NT then, he argues. The strength of Unix lies in the feature he comes back to time and time again – the ability to innovate using it. Ideally, he says, he’d like to have seen Novell Inc doing its own Unix product and managing the political process at the same time. He’s resigned to another (single) group doing that work. At the low end of its product range, Silicon Graphics is now courting the pre-press and production markets in a bid to get its Indy and Indigo workstations a hold on the reseller and value-added reseller worlds. It’s already got over 200 outlets in the US, but will have to go some to meet McCracken’s stated aim that Indy should make up 50% of his unit shipments by next year, half of total revenue within two years. – William Fellows