Silicon Graphics Workstations

I have several vintage computers in my collection, but my SGI workstations are the most fun to use. Silicon Graphics Inc. was a pioneer and early leader in computer graphics, and was the creator of IRIS GL and later OpenGL which became the industry standard. Their graphics hardware established the modern graphics pipeline and eventually led to the development of the modern GPU. In fact, many former SGI engineers went on to form the technical core of Nvidia. The original GeForce was based on principles developed for the InfiniteReality graphics pipeline, simplified and implemented into a single chip for PCs.

SGI hardware was famous for its industrial design and colorful cases, but some systems were notorious for having brittle plastics. My Onyx2 has delicate skins and mine have several broken tabs that aren't visible. The Indigo2 is more robust, but still requires some care to not break weak points such as the front door hinge.

SGI systems ran IRIX, a Unix operating system that included a very polished and advanced desktop environment and facilities for real-time video and graphics. Even today, it compares well against modern desktop environments and does not feel clunky or archaic to use. This is one reason they are so enjoyable to play with, they don't feel limiting unlike many other vintage systems.

I have two SGI systems:

SGI Indigo2 Max IMPACT

Year Introduced1992 for Indigo2 platform, 1995 for IMPACT graphics
Year Obtained2009
CPUMIPS R10000 @ 195MHz (IP28)
GraphicsMax IMPACT w/ 4MB TRAM
(takes up 3 GIO-64 expansion slots)
Storage18GB UltraSCSI drive through adapter to SCSI-2 interface
NetworkPhobos G160 100MBit ethernet
(takes up 1 GIO-64 expansion slot)
Removable mediaCaddy-based CD-ROM
Expandability4 combined GIO-64/EISA expansion slots
PowerIMPACT-ready power supply

My Indigo2 is from the late 1990s, and was a 3D modeling and animation workstation in its previous life in the Bay Area. It includes a licensed copy of Maya 2.5 and other software. Maya is slow but usable on it. It makes a decent general-use box, and is fast enough to play a bunch of great OpenGL demo games that SGI packaged with these systems. In addition to games, I use it as a development and build workstation for IRIX software.

SGI Onyx2 Deskside

Year Introduced1996
Year Obtained2010
CPU4x MIPS R12000 @ 400MHz (IP31)
GraphicsInifiniteReality4: GE-16, 2x RM-11, DG5-2
Storage18GB UltraSCSI drive w/ SCA interface
NetworkPCIe Gigabit ethernet
Removable mediaCD-ROM
DAT-4 tape deck
Expandability4 XIO slots
PCIe "shoebox" in 1 XIO slot, holds up to 3 PCI-X cards
Graphics engine slot
2x Raster Manager slots
1 Display Generator slot
PowerMassive, 120V/240V switchable but I run mine on a dedicated 240V circuit

My Onyx2 is from the early 2000s. I don't know what it was used for originally. I purchased it from an equipment reseller auction in Texas, and had it shipped via freight to a nearby terminal for me to pick up in my own truck. It arrived in a fairly basic configuration, with two R10K processors, 1GB RAM, and InfiniteReality2 graphics, but I've upgraded it quite a bit over the years and it's now a potent system with four R12K processors, 8GB RAM, and top-shelf InfiniteReality4 graphics. These are based on the Origin 2000 supercomputer and server platform, but the Onyx2 deskside units replaced some of the processor and NUMAlink router slots with dedicated graphics slots to make it a capable visualization and CAD workstation. One of these would have set you back a lot of money in the day, though. I estimate that my setup would have cost around $500,000 to put together back when this was still cutting edge technology. I've put about $1,500 into mine, showing just how quickly computing technology has moved on.

This computer is a lot of fun to use, and gives off "big iron" vibes even though it's still technically a workstation. Its fan tray moves a ton of air and sounds like the airflow units in dedicated computer labs. It's way too massive to put onto a desk, and is like a large minifridge on the floor. You turn it on with a key, and remote power control is possible through its MSC (module system controller). I use mine for 3D modeling in Maya 6.5, CAD using Pro/E, and of course to play classic OpenGL network games with my kids. It has spent countless hours running cycles and pointblank!

Last modified: December 26, 2023