SGI readies visual area networks

The evolution of distributed, collaborative computing took another step Tuesday as SGI (Silicon Graphics Inc.) unveiled the products and vision for its VAN (visual area network) technology.

SGI's new OpenGL Vizserver 2.0 software brings advanced session-management techniques to collaborative, multiclient computing environments. Running on SGI's Onyx 3000 Series NUMA-based servers, Vizserver 2.0 lets multiple clients log onto and interact within collaborative applications such as design and 3-D rendering, according to Bob Bishop, chairman and CEO of SGI.

The ultimate vision for SGI's VAN technology is to create real-time, collaborative environments where multiple, geographically distributed users can interact together on a project from a PC, a laptop, or eventually even a handheld PDA, Bishop said.

"The central data for many large graphics files is getting so large you can't really afford to move it around anymore," Bishop said. "We want to distribute these jobs over any network, to any client, be it a laptop, desktop, PDA, or other device, and have users steer a central graphics supercomputer from these devices."

SGI's experience in high-end graphics computing sweetens this latest twist on the client/server computing model, said Sarang Ghadpande, an analyst with D.H. Brown Associates, in Port Chester, N.Y.

"CAD guys have been trying to do this for a long time. And while there are many technologies that allow you to do [collaborative computing] in one sense or the other, other vendors haven't done much to deliver a product that actually enables a collaborative infrastructure like [SGI's]," Ghadpande said.

Any late model PC or laptop will work as a Vizserver 2.0 client. The technology needed to get PDAs to operate within Vizserver 2.0 is currently in development. Users also need to enlist an SGI Onyx 3000 server to deploy the Vizserver 2.0 collaborative environment, Bishop said.

Perfecting SGI's VAN vision of eventually providing multiple, collaborative work sessions to a wide range of clients all in ultra-high resolution could face hurdles -- some as simple and frustrating as trying to calibrate the color balance on multiple PDA screens displaying a color-critical rendering, said Neil Strother, a senior analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

SGI is targeting the energy, medical, science, defense, and design industry with early generations of its VAN technology, but D.H. Brown's Ghadpande said SGI's VAN technology and the collaborative techniques it will bring should spill over into other technology markets, including enterprise business.

"I think there will be a very demanding market for VANs. It is a great thing for the enterprise and for collaborative product development," Ghadpande said. "And it extends on the computing grid model that basically talks about using computing resources, then extending it beyond computing to visualization."

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