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Grass-roots effort pulls SGI toward Linux

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Silicon Graphics (SGI) is proud to talk about how well it supports Windows NT, and likes to boast about the scalability and reliability of its Irix operating system. But the technically savvy workstation and server vendor has said little about Linux.

Meanwhile, programmers inside and outside the company have been banging away, bringing the free, open source operating system to an array of SGI server and workstation

So does SGI like Linux or not? Despite more than three weeks of inquiries from Network World, the question remains unanswered.

SGI seems to be making all the right Linux moves, but the company is reluctant to talk about them. In fact, SGI seems oddly defensive, and sometimes ambivalent, about its Linux efforts.

For instance, late last year the computer company became a sponsoring member of Linux International, a nonprofit association that works on the promotion and growth of Linux. SGI wrote a press release about its membership, but then tried to retract it after it was posted on Linux International's site (www.li.org). The organization has refused to remove the SGI document from its site.

When contacted about this, SGI officials said they had no official comment on Linux involvement. One source, however, says the company did not want to appear to be copying Sun, which made a big Linux splash in December when it promised to port Linux to UltraSPARC.

After a series of follow-up calls, Network World spoke with Dave McAllister, SGI's representative to Linux International. McAllister acknowledged the existence of an engineering-led, SGI-sponsored Linux mailing list, whose members have been porting Linux to different SGI machines for more than two years. McAllister offered little else on SGI's interest in Linux or the company's overall strategy.

SGI's server product line manager, Ben Passerelli, only added scant details to McAllister's description of SGI's Linux activity.

SGI's official interest in Linux was short-lived - it peaked early and seemingly waned quickly after. In summer 1996, the company hired an intern to port Linux to SGI's Indy workstation. The intern, who also ported Linux to Sun's SPARC, left soon after finishing the kernel part of the SGI/Linux port. The company has not filled this Linux position.

A grass-roots effort within SGI has paid off. Volunteers have finished porting Linux to SGI's Indy machine, and their attention has now swung to other SGI devices, including SGI's newest box, the Visual Workstation, which runs Windows NT Workstation software. Linux also runs on SGI's Origin200 server.

The Linux mailing list, which is active today and counts SGI employees as one-quarter of its members, grew out of the project porting Linux to Indy. Having nearly completed the port on SGI's Indy, dubbed HardHat 5.1, early in the summer of 1998, others on the list moved on to the SGI's Indigo workstation, the Visual workstation and other units, including the Indy and Indigo, which are not current-technology machines.

SGI, the silent partner in this deal, has aided this mailing list by supplying a Web site (www.linux.sgi.com), hardware, documentation and equipment, but many folks in corporate SGI don't know anything about it.

SGI's Passerelli confirms that Linux runs on various SGI machines, such as its current Origin200 server, as well as its Visual Workstation, announced last week. And without offering a strategy or official endorsement, Passerelli praises the up-and-coming operating system. "We are looking at Linux extremely seriously because in technical, government and Internet space you hear a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for what's going on in the open source community," Passerelli says. Servers amount to 50% of SGI's revenue.

"Stay tuned" is all SGI will officially say about Linux. Although further details are not available, SGI's 64-bit desktop and servers, which will be announced when Intel's Merced chip is complete, will be able to run Linux, as well as Windows NT and Irix, Passerelli says.

Meanwhile, sources indicate that SGI is talking to Linux providers, such as Red Hat Software, about supporting SGI hardware.

Linux is hardly as scalable as Irix, so don't expect to see SGI abandoning Irix, says an unnamed source. But Linux may be faster, at least according to the same source, who found that Linux is twice as fast as Irix on single-processor systems.

Whether SGI will ever officially endorse Linux remains to be seen.

The company has worked for two and a half years with Microsoft on high-end graphics, and a bold Linux pronouncement could jeopardize that relationship, some observers say.

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