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SGI Serves up Video with a Twist

If you’ve seen a movie with animation or special effects lately, chances are you’ve seen Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) products at work.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has been at the forefront of graphical imaging since it began in 1982 and has many feature films and television events in its corporate resume. The company, founded by well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark, quickly became famous in the entertainment industry for its high-powered graphics workstations.

"The second system we sold was to Disney," said Greg Estes, vice president and general manager, telecommunications and media for SGI.

"The first was to [the] NASA-Ames [Research Center]. Serving both worlds of creative and technical user has been our mission the whole time."

SGI workstations and servers are popular in the film industry. Most recent Disney features used SGI products, as did special-effects laden films such as ILM’s "The Perfect Storm" and 20th Century Fox’s "X-Men."


"We were one of the early pioneers in something called ‘Symmetric Multi-Processing,’ which means [there are] many CPUs in a system," Estes said. "A lot of our business revolves around the ability to build very large computing systems."

SGI’s server technology is based on "ccNUMA" architecture, which enabled the company to build the computer system at the nuclear research lab at Los Alamos, N.M., the largest computing system in operation today, Estes said.

SGI processors are used throughout the television industry in applications where high-resolution real-time graphics are required.

"The vast majority of the weather graphics that you see on television every night are run on SGI systems," Estes said. "When you see a company like Sport Vision with its "1st and 10" product that puts a stripe on the [field] – that is SGI hardware, as well."

The recently concluded November elections saw many of the network-level broadcast graphics prepared using SGI hardware.

"The networks used our Onyx systems, which is the graphics version of our big server," Estes said.


With all that power in workstations and multi-processor computing, users needed a server that could handle the data required for high-quality imaging and graphics.

"Over time we developed advanced server technologies, initially because we had to find a way to feed the graphics systems faster than they could be fed by standard computing [networks]," Estes said.

One of the company’s server products, the Media Server, was introduced at NAB 2000. The product is aimed at the production and broadcast markets. The SGI Media Server features up to 12 simultaneous video channels (four inputs and eight outputs), SDTI ports, up to 16 channels of AES/EBU digital audio and up to 88 hours of storage.

The Media Server uses DVCPRO25 compression and supports data transfer at speeds up to 4x real time. The company plans to introduce an MPEG-2 version of the Media Server in 2001, and is also working on DVCPRO50 and HDTV versions of the product.

With the company’s background in moving large, graphical data files, Estes said that the Media Server handles motion video data as though it was any other form of data. The Media Server allows video files to be attached to e-mail, to made available through FTP sites or sent on IP networks.

It started with a partnership with Panasonic.

"We worked with Panasonic to use [Panasonic’s] newsBYTE system as the editing front-end and have the SGI server be the server that stored that content," Estes said.

The resulting product differs from most other video servers in that the Media Server handles all types of data and is not just another video "goezinta/goezouta" box.


"What you get is the convenience of a ‘black box’ [specialized video server] with the flexibility of an open architecture system," Estes said. "It made no sense for us to [just] be the 12th video server on the marketplace."

The Media Server is intended for applications were there are lots of users in many different locations, all of whom need access to the video and other data on the server.

Among other places, the SGI Media Server is installed at Time Warner Cable’s News8 Austin (Texas), KYW (Philadelphia), WXYZ (Detroit), WKBW (Buffalo), KCBS (Los Angeles), WCBS (New York) and WQAD (Moline, Ill.). In addition, Sveriges Television in Sweden has 22 systems installed.

And that first SGI system that was sold to NASA-Ames… what was it for?

"I’m pretty sure it was computational fluid dynamics," said Estes.

That makes "The Perfect Storm" sound like a walk on a spring afternoon.

Silicon Graphics Inc.

1600 Amphitheatre Parkway

Mountain View, Calif. 94043

Ph: 800-800-7441

Fax: 650-933-0591

Bob Kovacs is the former Technology Editor for TV Tech and editor of Government Video. He is a long-time video engineer and writer, who now works as a video producer for a government agency. In 2020, Kovacs won several awards as the editor and co-producer of the short film "Rendezvous."