Get to know people who support legacy computers in working condition.

Original author: Ernie Smith
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Almost 30 years after ruling Silicon Graphics in the world of computer graphics, its supercomputers found new places for themselves in a small community of enthusiasts - some of whom were not even born during the company's heyday.



Ian Mapleson, supporting SGIdepot.co.uk, next to Onyx 3800

Recently, I was faced with an unexpected question regarding equipment that few people used in principle. What exactly makes such a gigantic workstation, which at the time of release in the early 90s cost something like a house, and makes noise when working, like a vacuum cleaner, for a 16-year-old?

Unlike the old Super NES or Amiga, there can be no nostalgia for Silicon Graphics Onyx - unless you developed games using this computer from Silicon Graphics Inc (SGI), made a quarter of a century ago, in the Clinton era, instead of to play games.

Although after the release of the graphic workstation Indigo worth $ 8,000in 1991, SGI gained legendary status; its computers relied on a platform that differed from PC and Mac platforms. It was called MIPS, and quite a few people dealt with it.

However, the following video proves that SGI actually moved to the suburbs. A Canadian teenager got himself Onyx, a device that cost $ 250,000 a year, and best known as the main platform for developing games for Nintendo 64. And obviously, having published this video in August where he describes the pros and cons of a giant machine, the teenager very excited.

And he is not alone: ​​the passion for SGI lives today. And that's how it happens.


Iron is the same, but the SGI community is changing


What SGI Onyx review doesn’t say is that the video creator, who has taken the Dodoid alias, is a new face of the old tradition of collecting computers.

No one buys a 130-pound supercomputer Onyx by accident. This is an incredibly complex machine - at the time of its release, its graphics capabilities exceeded all the advanced standards of the time, and still look good. It was packed with gigabytes of memory, when personal computers read memory in tens of megabytes, it works on the MIPS architecture, when the PC used Intel, and Apple - PowerPC, and its body most resembles a fashionable air conditioner. In this case, Dodoid is well versed in its constituent parts. Perhaps, therefore, and also because of his direct manner of presenting the car, this video has already gained 680,000 views on YouTube.

Dodoid, trying to share personal life and online presence, was born in 2002, when SGI’s influence had long been declining — and almost ten years after the car’s popularity in pop culture, when Wayne Knight in the movie spoiled one of the workstations "Jurassic Park". The car is very interesting, but rare.


But long-time members of the SGI amateur community, such as Ian Mapleson, a British computer expert who has long supported an online store selling computer equipment, readily praised Dodoid's work.

“Dodoid is cool,” he wrote to me by mail. - His enthusiasm reminds me of me when I first became interested in SGI in 1993, although it is of course much skill to me, and he became interested in the topic, being 15 years younger than I was then. "

16-year-old teenager, paying their Hobby, reselling laptops, was in the lead in the SGI lovers community, not least because of this passion.However, changes in this community also played a role: just a few months ago, the Nekochan forum was closed.

Its founder Peter Planck (under the pseudonym Nekonoko) accused of closing the difficulties associated with the need to meet the new European General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). And although GDPR played its role in closing many long-existing platforms, in particular, Klout , it is possible that even the community of supercomputer enthusiasts may have the same legal problems, although in principle such strict rules as GDPR can affect any organization. Anyway, Nekochan closed.


Dodoid with SGI Indy and Onyx

Planck, with whom I could not communicate, did not give more detailed explanations about the closure of the site, and did not say whether this site would return, which contained its encyclopedia and a lot of information in discussions on forums, in some other form - but Depending on the reasons for the closure, this situation has created a large information failure in the SGI community.

Mapleson noted that the four-month site leave has left behind a long sequence of broken URLs. “It’s gone so long that Google has already eliminated the results associated with it from the search engine, and now everything looks like it wasn’t at all,” he wrote.

These machines, whose component parts may break at any time, running operating systems that stopped updating more than ten years ago, lived only thanks to the goodwill of this small community. And after the forum closed, their will was put to the test.

IRIX.cc, the website that was originally trying to circumvent the rules of Nekochan regarding the resale of software, and now became the center of the SGI community, replaced this source of knowledge about vintage work computers. Raion, a 24-year-old sysadmin from Virginia who helps maintain this site, and asked not to use his real name, said that because of the closure of Nekochan, he had to significantly increase the resources of his site. But the hardest was the increase in moderation work needed to support the community.


SGI Fuel next to the ZX81

“I’m doing everything I can to answer everyone who asks questions, or, if I don’t know the answer, I’ll refer to someone who can know him,” he explained. “Managing such a community is 10% of knowledge and 90% of leadership.”

Given the complexity of these computers, it is incredibly important to know the basics of the topic in order for SGI to continue to exist. But leaving Nekochan makes you wonder if the problems associated with supporting the online community have played a role in closing it for more than a decade.

Dodoid, who also asked not to use his real name, suggested that the existence of an online community around SGI, demonstrating elements of friendship and camaraderie that naturally arise in this kind of hobby, indicates a certain need.

“IRIX.cc took over the baton only after Nekochan’s death, when it became clear that he would not return,” explains Dodoid, who acts as moderator. - And something new can replace it only if something happens to IRIX.cc. And yet, the community is primarily based on necessity. We need to stick together, and one site should be our gathering point. ”

In other words, as he explained, IRIX.cc is the center of the SGI world, since it was there that everything turned out - whether they like this platform or not.

The SGI community has rarely received the attention of the outside world. For example, in 2004, Wired magazine became interested in them , highlighting the work of many community pillars, including Mapleson and Planck.

But this kind of coverage of their activities is rare, and attention to SGI systems is not even close to the attention of more mainstream old systems, such as the Commodore Amiga, Apple II and IBM PC DOS era. As a result, for those who did not follow the SGI scene, this results in an interesting dynamic. Collecting old stuff doesn’t work in the case of SGI as you would expect.

Five things you need to know about buying an SGI workstation in 2018


1. No emulations exist, you have to buy a real computer. Several attempts have been made to revive the iron SGI with the help of software and emulation, but so far no one has managed to reproduce it for real. “It’s very difficult to try SGI yourself, because there are not so many left, and there’s no emulation,” Raion told me. As a result, you will have to demonstrate dedication even before you manage to try a computer — you need to find the person who has it, or buy it yourself. Raion recommends SGI O2 the size of a mini-tower, released in 1996, as a good option for beginners.

2. Buy a computer can be cheaper than you think. Buying SGI will not be a cheap hobby, but you can get a good discount on these computers if you know where to look - and this is most likely not eBay. Dodoid got its Onyx, as well as the desktop version of the Origin 2000 , O2, Octane2 and a bunch of spare parts for $ 456. The secret is that he bought them from a collector from Montreal who wanted to throw off this good, and was patient. Mapleson, on the other hand, warns that the supply chain is growing shallower as SGI computers are becoming less common. “You can still find good offers, but the likelihood of this is small,” he said.

3. Do not even think to use the case for modding. The SGI enclosures were especially beautiful and well thought out, but you should not plan on gutting it and installing another computer there. “There is an unwritten agreement in the community that SGI is too rare and special to do this to them, and that the person who wants to create such a thing does not need to sell SGI,” Dodoid told me. “It will be hard to buy SGI with the goal of shoving Mini ITX into it if SGI owners do not sell them to you.” Noting the interest in this topic, Dodoid embodied the case printed on a 3D printer, styled after the SGI Indigo, into which the single-board computer ODROID fits.

4. They have a lot of components. Highly. Lot. Disassembling Onyx from Dodoid shows a huge number of individual cards needed for the operation of this computer, and if one of them breaks, it can be a serious problem (or, depending on your mood, an interesting adventure). Even smaller workstations have their own quirks - one of the examples I often heard is that older computers have keyboard and mouse ports that look exactly like the typical PS / 2 ports on a PC for that time, but if you connect them to computer is a PC-compatible mouse; this may cause a short circuit. “Many people don’t understand how SGI was different from PCs and Macs of the time,” explains Aaron Rodgers, collector for SGI, SiliconClassics ’s YouTube channel.

5. They can not be compared with modern technology. Just because many SGI machines had a reputation as hellishly fast, and the cost that hinted at it, does not mean that they can be compared with modern systems - if only because they have a completely different task. “SGI can still find particular uses, and some of them still do important work, but my Onyx will not be able to defeat a modern consumer device designed for gaming,” explained Dodoid.

“Most SGI fans are familiar with the use of these computers in the film industry and special effects, three-dimensional simulation and virtual reality, but few know that they played a crucial role in applying to various industrial tasks and process control - from the production of textiles and printed circuit boards to medical scanners, training systems and even meat processing at slaughterhouses, ”says Ian Mapleson about the surprisingly wide range of applications for SGI computers, which he is familiar with because he was one of the few specializing in the sale of spare parts and devices for this platform. Their field of application, he said, was even wider than indicated by the advertising of these computers, and because of this he had seen many examples of their use, finding himself in the places where they were used, and helping to set them up - in particular, in hospitals. “It was very interesting for me to get acquainted with many different aspects of the world of commerce. “I've been to power plants, textile factories, and, naturally, to film companies,” he says. “And by email, I helped many other companies from all over the world.”

How a community of enthusiasts is changing in a quarter century


From the point of view of the online community, SGI computers are interesting in that, although the circle of their fans today is rather narrow, it has existed since the earliest days of the Internet.

Mapleson worked with the SGI platform back in the days when the Netscape browser did not exist - the company's creation, one of the founders of which was the longtime SGI head Jim Clark - so he happened to witness major changes in the SGI amateur community over the last quarter century. Mapleson says that in the early 90s, such amateurs were rarely met, and their number increased only when the market for used computers developed quite strongly in the late 90s. Until then, SGI specialists, who left their comments, met in the academic world, in the business world, and even in the SGI company itself, and often used Usenet to communicate.

The unstable nature of Usenet, the place where the term " flame " appeared, was not particularly kindly related to SGI groups; they were not located in the alt section, and they were moderated. Answers were often delayed, which set the tone for the entire discussion, and groups were usually helped by detailed lists with answers to frequently asked questions .

Of course, all these experts are not very fond of outsiders.


SGI Tezro in a rack housing

“I remember how one user with a PC asked a reasonable enough question,“ What is SGI? ”; and received the answer: “If you don’t know what it is, you can’t afford it,” which, of course, made everyone laugh at the time, but also served as a sign that there was something wrong in the community. ” remembers Mapleson.

With the growth of the web, many SGI sites (which often had outdated designs so that they could be viewed on IRIX web browsers) were gaining in popularity, but gradually, one by one, these sites disappeared or ceased to be updated. Nekochan, which appeared in the early 2000s, was one of many dedicated to problems with SGI. But it eventually turned into a centralized community meeting place.

Mapleson points out that the difference between Usenet and the web influenced how people from the community worked with each other.

“In a sense, the instantaneous nature of modern forums like Nekochan encourages people to respond to an emotional rather than intellectual response; they often say things that they later regret; “Of course, people know that posts can be edited, but by that time it may be too late,” Mapleson says. “In the case of Usenet, the probability of appearing simple arguments was less, and the whole system was perceived as something more normal.”

Nekochan has been active for about 15 years, having survived SGI itself, and allowing culture to unite around the site. At this time, SGI employees gradually disappeared from sight, and lovers of this brand began to emerge in the first place. And if people like Mapleson, who combined professional interest in the platform with a personal one, continued to be in the community, other old-timers disappeared.

Aaron Rogers, with SiliconClassics, who last year discovered the Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for Nintendo 64 source code on SGI Indy , notes that his own interest in the platform fades away over time.

“I think that I showed all interest in the SGI platform, which I was capable of, at least for today,” he wrote by mail. “I have all the SGI computers I wanted to buy, and most of them have been gathering dust in storage for years.”

This kind of community, focused on a line of computers that few people who are not in the world of cinema, science and industry, could in principle come in contact with, by definition, should be fairly closed. When old-timers fall off, at some point, knowledge will go along with them. Therefore, users like Dodoid and Raion, young, interested in what constitutes an SGI platform, are so important now for this community.

SGI computers, whether workstations or supercomputers, represent an interesting niche among retrocomputers - these are machines that will not be recreated in their classic form, for collecting which requires a lot of money, and which, at least in some cases, are very expensive just maintain in working condition.

These computers were at the top of the food chain, used for special tasks, with the result that they are associated not so much with nostalgia as with the admiration that supports their existence today.

Rogers compared SGI with fans of cars with SiliconClassics, in particular, because these systems "require a lot of things from their owners." “After you put so much effort into this hobby, it takes hold of you,” he explains.

Such dedication may in the future inspire potential upgrades. In the same way that old PCs find a new life when they replace hard drives with CompactFlash cards , and for Amiga they made processor upgrades cards, not bad accelerating them, there is an interest to create add-ons that could help SGI computers to keep up with modern times.


The Dodoid O2 computer for

Dodoid development is working on a D1 project , which includes a hardware and software solution that will use a combination of a PCI coprocessor and additional software, allowing users to run modern Linux applications on IRIX. “Applications running on D1 appear on the IRIX desktop and gain access to the SGI file system and so on,” he explains. “That is, it will be possible to launch modern software on a fast processor on SGI.”

Among other things, it can help solve a long-standing problem of the platform: the lack of modern web browsers. Although SGI computers do a good job with graphics and data processing, certain browser needs, including JavaScript, have bypassed them. Mapleson says that although he has sold various parts for SGI for many years, it is this problem that prevents him from using an IRIX-based computer on a daily basis. He encourages SGI enthusiasts to support the work of Dodoid.

“If he can give SGI the ability to use the modern web, so as not to suffer from the performance problems inherent in the standard SGI, this will seriously affect the usability,” said Mapleson. In addition, Dodoid is working on a major infrastructure update IRIX.cc.

Of course, upgrades are one thing, but the main secret of how to make all this old hardware work is in the community. Raion is well aware of this, since everything from potential SGI users to regular visitors to Nekochan, appearing on the Internet, eventually ends up on IRIX.cc. And, unlike the Usenet days, Raion emphasizes the importance of positive attitude and hospitality - this can also keep SGI’s interest afloat. “I'm not going to let the community fall apart again,” he told me. I’ll rather go home out myself than see how this community will lose its home again. ”

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