INTERVIEW: Robert Bishop, SGI chairman

High-performance ASPs are on tap

Robert Bishop

Robert Bishop has executed several fast changes in course at SGI since he became chairman and chief executive officer in 1999.

Bishop has been with the company since 1986 and earlier held executive positions with Apollo Computer Inc. and Digital Equipment Corp., both of which have since been acquired by other companies.

SGI of Mountain View, Calif., is navigating a difficult course in high-performance computing. Its divestiture of Cray Research Inc. last year marked a sharp turn toward scalable commodity systems and away from the company's historically proprietary graphics and visualization products.

About a quarter of SGI's $2.3 billion revenue last year came from the federal government.

Bishop received a bachelor's degree in mathematical physics from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and a master of science degree from New York University.

GCN chief technology editor Susan M. Menke interviewed Bishop by telephone in Washington, where he was meeting with other high-tech chief executives participating in the Computer Systems Policy Project.

GCN: What is the Computer Systems Policy Project advising the new administration to do?

BISHOP: We'll make suggestions here and there. We think that after the Defense Department review, the administration will be active in promoting certain programs.

We've heard that President Bush supports the National Missile Defense program, which involves a few of the things SGI has been deeply concerned with, such as the Space-Based Infrared System.
SBIRS has more than 300 of our large Onyx image-processing systems for high-end visualization. It's run by the Air Force for satellite ground stations.

We think the DOD strategy will speed deployment through leading-edge commercial technology. The United States has always had difficulty dealing with the export of technology, and that's getting even more difficult with the proliferation of high-performance computers being manufactured all around the world. And you can now network yourself anywhere in the world into high-performance computing resources.

The way out of that is to push in the direction of keeping U.S. forces further up the curve in deployment and systems integration'to take advantage of their overall lead in information technology.

GCN: How does wireless figure into your expectations for government computing?

BISHOP: There's ground mobility between units, but also a vast amount of wireless that goes out to satellites and down. All of that data is being flowed together. Keeping up with the bandwidth and data rates is a big data problem.

The accuracy and depth of information being transferred by wireless are increasing simultaneously. The amount of surveillance data from the air, whether by satellite or AWACS aircraft, is going to flow through command centers and Web sites that will process and distribute the data to decision points.

The data is getting more accurate and more valuable, but it's absorbing bandwidth'a supermassive data problem. We're engaged in combining the systems throughput for visualization in real time. Real time is the characteristic of handling big data.

GCN: Is that on Irix or Linux platforms?


  • Personal hero: Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics Inc. in 1982

  • Last book read: Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic by Alfred Lansing

  • Last movie seen: 'The Perfect Storm,' in which visual effects were created on SGI workstations and servers

  • Leisure activities: 10K walks and Aussie-rules football

  • BISHOP: Irix. Linux is not at the point of being a real-time operating system. We've developed Irix for real time over the last 18 years. You can't create 3-D visualization on a flat, 2-D screen without real-time motion.

    GCN: How important is Linux to SGI?

    BISHOP: It's complementary to our Mips-Irix product line, which has been the backbone of the company. Linux is moving very fast in the server space. It benefits from having no cost associated with it. The open-source community develops and maintains it, so we don't have to make the investment.

    We're introducing Linux on Intel Corp. platforms. We're not putting Linux on our Mips processors. They are two separate product lines.

    At the moment, Linux is only available on 32-bit platforms. It has found usage in Internet applications, but the next big step is the IA-64 architecture. We're developing on 64-bit Intel Itanium for 64-bit Linux. The best forecast for Itanium's general availability is midyear. We'll put it into our large, scalable systems two or three months after that. We have prototypes in-house now.

    GCN: Are you outsourcing the server hardware?

    BISHOP: In the case of the IA-32 servers, we are outsourcing all the hardware. As we go to IA-64, we will leverage from the Mips-Irix line and transfer the same infrastructure to the Itanium-Linux product line.

    GCN: The original vision for Itanium, or Merced back in the mid-1990s, was for the same processor to run both Unix and Microsoft Windows OSes. Is that ever going to happen?

    BISHOP: We're not depending on it. At the 64-bit level, we're going to run only Linux on Itanium.
    Irix has been in the 64-bit business for more than 10 years. We're watching Intel come into it, and we're going to ride on their Itanium 64 and the planned follow-on chips: McKinley and Madison.
    The commercial space has less need for 64-bit systems. It's scientists and engineers that need them.

    GCN: How is your federal business unit doing?

    BISHOP: We put SGI Fed together a year ago, and we have several hundred people in it. It accounts for more than 20 percent of our revenue. It's working on several projects you may not have heard about.

    We recently installed a 128-processor Origin 3000 for the Navy's Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center on the Monterey Peninsula [in California], which does weather and ocean forecasting. A big, 512-processor machine is on order. It's replacing a Cray C-90.

    In the last couple of months, we've installed a high-performance financial analysis system in Washington for the Health Care Financing Administration. SGI MineSet software helps with the algorithms that test for Medicare fraud.

    Two Origin 2000 servers in West Virginia are an extension of the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Whenever anyone attempts to buy firearms, there's a need to consult it. We're supplying the rapid online image processing.

    Out in the Pacific at the Maui High Performance Computing Center, we have two big systems that are both 128 processors. Together with a business partner called WAMnet Inc. [of Egan, Minn.], which supplies bandwidth around the world using SGI products, we've coordinated with the Maui center to offer high-performance computing as an application service provider.

    More and more, we see high-performance computing being on tap, so to speak, and there's a business model starting to emanate from that.

    SGI Fed is doing very well. It's program-oriented, and most government business is long-term.
    We've been in NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement I and II, and SEWP III is coming along. We're working closely with NASA across the board and are happy about that.

    The only troublesome message is that in the change of administration there has been a fair amount of uncertainty about budgeting. We're all scrambling to deal with that.

    It's kind of a short-term dip, and I think in the long term we probably will see federal spending that is more in our direction than ever before.

    GCN: Are you still supporting your older systems, such as the Cray C-90?

    BISHOP: Yes, all of them. Our current top-end machine, released last year, is the Origin 3000. Prior to that was the Origin 2000. We have 30,000 of them in the field. Users are upgrading them, step by step.

    The Cray family is also still out there. We acquired Cray Research Inc. in 1996 and divested it last year, including the service of the Cray machines, to Tera Computer Co. of Seattle, which is now called Cray Inc.


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