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.


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 Socket 370)
    • VIA Apollo Pro 133A, Acer M23D motherboard (used also in Acer Altos 350)
    • offered with VPro V3 (GeForce 256), VR3 (Quadro) or V7 (Quadro2 MXR) graphics or a Matrox Millenium G450
  • Visual Workstation 330/330L
    • Dual processor Pentium II/III (FCPGA Socket 370)
    • VIA Apollo Pro 133A, Acer M25D motherboard (used also in Acer Altos 600, also available as AOpen DX34 Plus)
    • offered with VPro V3 (GeForce 256), VR3 (Quadro), V7 (Quadro2 MXR) or VR7 (Quadro2 Pro) graphics
  • Visual Workstation 550/550L
    • Dual processor Pentium III Xeon (Slot 2)
    • Intel i840, Acer M29A motherboard
    • offered with VPro VR3 (Quadro) or VR7 (Quadro2 Pro) graphics
  • Visual Workstation 750
    • Itanium workstation based on Intel's reference design (same as Dell Precision WorkStation 730, IBM IntelliStation Z Type 6894, HP i2000, Fujitsu-Siemens CELSIUS 880)
  • Visual Workstation Zx10 (Bought from Intergraph)
    • Dual processor Pentium III (FCPGA Socket 370)
    • ServerWorks ServerSet III HE (with MADP memory controller), Tyan Thunder 2500 motherboard
    • offered with Wildcat 4110 VIO, Wildcat 4210, Wildcat 4210 VIO, Wildcat II 5110, VR7

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. **

Visual Workstation 230

Factory reset

To revert the system to its factory state you have to:

Linux with more than 768 MB RAM and nVidia graphics

If you have more than 768 MB RAM the nVidia graphics driver from the ProPack will crash[1]. If you can't remove the memory module you should add a parameter to boot LILO.


The Visual Workstation 230 uses a standard ATX PSU made by Delta, model DPS-300BB. If you need to change it you should make sure there are no protruding elements at the back of the PSU which would interfere with the back of the case - the PSU is covered by it on both sides and some PSUs with protruding sockets will not fit.

Visual Workstation 550

Upgrading CPUs

The Acer M29A motherboard supports Slot 2 CPUs with 133 MHz FSB and 5/12 V (VRMs are integrated in the processor cartridge). CPUs with 100 MHz FSB might work but this hasn't been tested.


The M29A Motherboard is very limited when comes to overclocking. It uses an ICS 9250BF-12 PLL which only supports 2 frequencies: 100 and 133 MHz. The BIOS provides no settings to change the frequency. No program (SoftFSB etc.) is known to work with this PLL, so you can't change the FSB frequency on the fly.

Common Visual Workstation 320 and 540 topics

Installing Windows 2000

Because SGI didn't release Windows 2000 for the Visual Workstation, you will have to use your own installation media - any retail copy should work. Installing Windows 2000 is pretty straightforward. You have to power on your 540, press two times ESC to go to the PROM menu and choose the option to install the OS. You might want to use the PROM's partitioning program to setup 2 partitions: one system partition and one boot partition (just launch it and run with the default values it displays). After Windows 2000 setup launches it should just work without further customization - it will choose the correct HAL and install the drivers.

After installation you should start with Silicon Graphics 320/540 Supplemental Software Kit for Windows 2000 (SSK) (sgi_ssk.exe or sgi_ssk_jpn.exe for the Japanese version). It contains software which adds sound, video and color settings to the Control Panel. If you have an old PROM it will upgrade it to 1.1004. This package also contains the document ssk_relnotes.rtf which you might want to read before installing Windows 2000 - it explains what things won't work in the new OS.

The SSK will install video and media drivers version 5.10. There are newer drivers available. SGICoGraphics524w2k.exe will upgrade video drivers to version 5.24 and SGIDMediaSW522w2k.exe upgrades media drivers to 5.22. The latest PROM is 1.1005 and PROM1_1005.exe will allow you to create a PROM upgrade floppy. All these packages are available via the free Supportfolio account - just search for 540 and make sure you have set the search start date to some day in 1999.

After installing the SGI software you might notice in Windows' Device Manager a yellow exclamation mark on sglfb - this was the Microsoft's driver for Cobalt. You can safely remove this device - because of the VW's architecture the SGIs Cobalt driver appears as 'sgcomp' under "Non plug and play devices". You have to enable "show hidden devices" in the View menu to see it.

3D Acceleration

Only OpenGL accelerated 3D graphics is supported. Cobalt drivers won't accelerate Direct3D, only DirectDraw acceleration is provided.[2]

Windows XP beta on a Visual Workstation

Visual Workstation support was dropped from Windows XP during its development. The following Windows XP beta (codename "Whistler") builds contain the required HALBORG.DLL:

  • 5.00.2202.1
  • 5.00.2211.1
  • 5.1.2223.1

Visual Workstation 540

Compatible Pentium III Xeon Processors at 700 and 900 MHz

The Visual Workstation 540 is compatible with Pentium III Xeons which run either at 2.0V or 2.8V with 100 MHz bus speed. It won't work with 5/12V CPUs and 133 MHz Xeons might work at reduced speed or not work at all. Here's a table with CPUs which should work:

S/Q Spec Stepping Clock MHz L2 Cache Channel
QT74 A0 700 1M ES
QU37 A1 ES
QZ85 B0 ES
QT78 A0 2M ES
QU39 A1 ES
QZ89 B0 ES
QAK9 B0 900 2M ES


  • BOX - boxed processor with attached passive heatsing
  • OEM - OEM processor, not all heatsinks will fit or provide optimal cooling in a Visual Workstation 540
  • ES - Engineering Sample, not all heatsinks will fit or provide optimal cooling in a Visual Workstation 540

Ideally, when multiprocessing, all CPUs should have the same S-Spec code. Usually equal stepping is enough, but some 700 MHz Pentium III Xeons won't work together because of different AGTL+ signaling. Refer to the Intel Pentium III Xeon Processor Specification Update (Order number: 244460-043), chapter "Mixed Steppings in MP Systems" before you try to run CPUs with different S-Spec codes.


The "Silicon Graphics 540 Visual Workstation Owner's Guide" contains a table in Chapter 8 with symptoms, causes and solutions which can help in many cases when diagnosing your Visual Workstation 540.

If you're diagnosing the system based on the blinking LED on the front of the Visual Workstation there's you should know, that just after start, the LED will blink twice for every populated memory group. This is not the "continuous blinking" memory error code the Owner's Guide talks about, it's just information that memory is present. After that the LED blinks twice very fast and this is the moment the diagnostic blinks start to appear if there's something wrong.

Here are some hints.additional to those in the table from Chapter 8:

Symptom Possible Cause Solution
System powers on, LED and monitor are black. Missing or loosely sitting VRMs. You should install the required VRMs for your CPU configuration. On the side panel of your VW540 is a picture containing valid configurations. Also make sure the each VRM is fully seated - the clips on both sides of the module can easily unfasten if you push the module by accident.
System won't POST with a 900 MHz CPU after the PROM is reset. For some reason, if the PROM is reset (after, for example, the battery powering the PROM is dead), the VW540 won't start with a 900 MHz CPU (and possibly a 700 MHz one too). You have to put an older CPU, start and configure the workstation with it, then you can install the 900 MHz CPU back.
No cache VRM after downgrading CPUs. 700 and 900 MHz Pentium III Xeons have cache on-die and you don't have to install VRMs required to power the external cache of the older (450/500/550 MHz) CPUs. If you downgrade your configuration to one of these older CPUs you have to put the required VRMs back if you were operating the newer ones without them.
Missconfigured jumpers with older CPUs. 900 MHz CPUs configure the FSB/processor speed ratio automatically, but for older CPUs you have to use the jumpers on the top of the motherboard to configure it. The configuration is described in Chapter 6 of the Owner's Guide'.

External links


  2. "Re: Visual Workstation 320: worth trying".