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Restoring Athena’s Glory

Philip Burrowes

It’s unheard of to prefer -- when price is not an issue -- technologically inferior, antiquated computers to cutting-edge models. Yet what follows is just that. Information Systems, as part of its commitment to giving MIT students computers that actually work, is phasing out Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) machines in favor of Sun Blade 100s and Dell GX150s. Sure, they’re faster, have more RAM, come with built-in input devices, and don’t experience software conflicts due to long-forgotten operating systems. Do they, however, lend any equivalent ambiance, possess any comparable history, or let you turn the sound down? These seemingly irrelevant inadequacies will surely be wanting in future clusters.

Raise your hand if you remember Project Reality. For the uninitiated, it was going be Nintendo’s CD-based game console; their answer to Sega CD (and eventually Saturn), only good. What made it incredible was the idea of using graphics based on polygons -- “Reality Immersion Technology” -- instead of the traditional sprites. To power this revolutionary departure in design paradigms, Nintendo was utilizing the rendering power of SGI’s then-new Indy desktop. Nintendo’s legions of propaganda-subscribers ate up the ambiguously scientific details. Some of us hoped to sit down in front of that mythical computer, even if we would never have the technical skill to fully take advantage of its power.

A lucky few of us went to MIT and walked into a cluster, totally unaware that we would happen upon the beautiful Indy creature. It was probably a bit smaller than we imagined, but that made it all the more remarkable, right? Once we actually used the hunk of junk, we discovered our elusive unicorn was really a lumbering rhinoceros, known to crash at random. External volume controls were its sole saving grace, allowing us to secretly use AIM Quick Buddy. Buddies didn’t quite appreciate our constant gloating, however. Two or three logins were still enough for even the most fanatical to grow tired of the ironic novelty.

We chalked it up to Moore’s Law and retreated from the past, but still clung to the hope of seeing what SGI was up to now. Surely, if the eventual N64’s games could have been produced by a box over three years their senior, whatever succeeded it would blow the aesthetically pleasing but Wintel-wannabe Dells out of the water. On a crowded occasion at W20-575, maybe we walked into the dark and dank tower section that is right of the former Indy graveyard.

This time, we saw a light beckoning us away from the speciously massive Ultra 10s, and we turned to see towers after our own heart. Incredibly enough, SGI’s O2 was a svelte, stacked, altogether curvy computer we could actually use. Self-respecting UNIX users either balked at the IRIX GUI or kept their own X interfaces. The rest of us idiots (especially those who brimmed with glee at the fact that GameCube runs on a PowerPC) actually enjoyed the O2s more because it ran a bootleg MacOS, yet wasn’t a BeBox. Double-clicking didn’t always work, the Dumpster sometimes forgot how to empty itself, and we still couldn’t manually allocate memory, but hey, it had folders. If you really wanted to text-prompt your way through directories you could, but -- in shades of OpenDoc -- the exact same interface could be used to browse the Internet.

Occasionally, bemused glares from our cluster-mates made us remember we weren’t actually in an alternate-reality Cupertino (or even the Media Lab) but would forget that once we played around with the camera. Never mind that O2s had no floppy drive, no (useless) card slot, and an inexplicably hidden CD-ROM; it had a camera that made .MOVs (take that, Linux). All the better to see you with on those huge monitors. Besides that, there was a host of AV I/O ports that we never quite figured out let alone could reach, but we knew if we ever decided to carry around DV peripherals we would beeline over to O2s. True, they moved a bit slower than the Suns, but we weren’t exactly looking for a Quickstation. Using O2s meant we were in it for the long-haul, that we were willing to sacrifice speed for fun-of-use. Eventually, AOL came out with AIM Express, so the advantage that the also volume-adjustable O2s had over your average SUN slightly diminished, but we were Zephyring by then anyway. Netscape stopped working well too, suggesting (another) Time Warner conspiracy, but who really misses Flash? Sawfish had the audacity to supplant 4Dwm in AC-09.0, but we could (for the time being) retain our beloved GUI should we renounce GNOME and return to Dash upon login. As if growing tired of our irrational resilience, I/S simply removed many of the SGIs, leaving us where we are today.

Maybe they’re not gone forever, though. I/S held off on Indys for a long time, after all. Buying Origins might be out of the question (and Zx10 variants are hardware bastards), but as they’ve shown with their Internet servers, SGI is moving towards heavy Linux support. Should Apple ever get around to porting Quicktime, SGI could almost instantly become a viable producer of Linux boxes. We may well see the day where MIPS and S-Video will be as prevalent as UltraSPARCs or CD-RWs. On that day Athena will finally be restored to her former glory. Until then, we’ll be reserving 4-035 indefinitely to test out “Aqua”-based Swordfish themes.