SGI Visual Workstation

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SGI Visual Workstation 320

The SGI Visual Workstation series was a line of computer workstations manufactured by SGI and designed to run Windows NT and Linux. The Visual Workstations are notable for their use of the Intel Pentium II and Intel Pentium III processors (rather than the 64-bit MIPS RISC architecture usually used in SGI computer products), as well as for the unique departures from the standard IBM AT-derived architecture from which the great majority of Intel 386-based computers—for example, unlike virtually all other Intel Pentium-class systems, the Visual Workstations did not include a BIOS (often criticized as hackish and obsolete), in favor of a port of the same powerful ARCS firmware system used in all other contemporary SGI workstations.

Computer architecture

The Visual Workstations 320/540, although they used Intel processors, more closely resembled the SGI O2 than other Intel-based systems, in terms of computer architecture. Among other similarities, both the O2 and the Visual Workstations employed unified Memory Architecture memory systems. The later 230/330/550 workstations standard IBM PC compatible computers.

Operating system

The Visual Workstations 320/540 shipped with Microsoft Windows NT 4.0, and thanks to the custom Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL), could run any software written for Windows NT on Intel processors, and so was not the disaster that happened in the non-PC compatible DOS computer days. SGI also began shipping Visual Workstations preconfigured with release 6.2 of the Red Hat Linux distribution. These systems have the letter "L" appended to their model numbers.

However, the enhancements which differentiated the Visual Workstations over standard Intel machines necessitated a custom Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) for Windows, and Windows 2000 was the last release which included the required SGI-specific HAL. The HAL was removed during Windows XP development, it is still present in some of the first 'Whislter' betas. Because of that, and because SGI ceased supporting the Visual Workstation 320/540 installation of future Windows versions is unsupported.

Because of the various SGI enhancements, Visual Workstations often out-performed Intel Personal computers of similar configuration in graphically-intensive or memory bound applications. However due to the hefty upgrade costs for the non-standard components it was more cost effective to purchase an entire new higher-specced non-SGI PC rather than purchase upgrades to a Visual Workstation.

Display

The SGI 320 and 540 models shipped with the optional 1600SW TFT display. This flat panel runs at a SuperWide resolution of 1600 x 1024 pixels at 60Hz in 24-bit colour and 110 dpi. The display won 16 international awards and despite its age, it still compares well to modern displays produced nearly a decade later.

The 1600SW uses the OpenLDI standard, rather than DVI or VGA, and will only run from the SGI 320/540 or SGI O2 with flat panel adapter. Other cards are also capable of running the 1600SW, including the Number Nine Revolution IV. SGI later produced a Multilink Adapter to allow the 1600SW to be used with a DVI or VGA card capable of running at a resolution of 1600 x 1024. SGI refers to such hardware as Super Wide Savvy.

Models and configurations

The model numbers of the Visual Workstations:

  • Visual Workstation 320 - Dual processor Pentium II/III (Slot1) Cobalt chipset
  • Visual Workstation 540 - Quad processor Pentium II/III Xeon (Slot2) Cobalt chipset
  • Visual Workstation 230 - Single processor Pentium III (FCPGA Socket370) VIA Apollo Pro 133A, Acer M23D motherboard (used also in Acer Altos 350) **
  • Visual Workstation 330/330L - Dual processor Pentium II/III (FCPGA Socket370) VIA Apollo Pro 133A, Acer M25D motherboard (used also in Acer Altos 600, also available as AOpen DX34 Plus) **
  • Visual Workstation 550/550L - Dual processor Pentium III Xeon (Slot2) Intel i840, Acer M29A motherboard **

Visual Workstations were initially equipped with either a single Pentium II or Pentium III processor or dual (SMP) Pentium III processors. The 540 and 550 models supported the Xeon implementation of the Pentium series, and could support up to four Xeons in an SMP configuration. The systems include PCI expansion slots. Although no SGI Visual Workstation was ever released with processors running faster than 700 MHz, some hobbyists have been able to run processors up to a single 1.4 GHz Celeron (100 MHz FSB) or dual 1 GHz Pentium III CPUs (100 MHz FSB) with appropriate upgrades to the ARCS PROM.

Later systems (230, 330, and 550 models) were not based on the original Visual Workstation UMA architecture (cobalt chipset), but rather on VIA Technologies (230 and 330) or Intel 840 (550) chipsets. These systems used socketed 133MHz-bus Intel Pentium 3 CPUs, complete with generic PC BIOS, generic PC memory (RDRAM in the 550), and other non-differentiated parts. The "L" denotes a system that shipped pre-installed with Linux as opposed to Windows. **

External links