High-Level Graphics Computing Migrates to Desktop Machines

February 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Imagery capabilities formerly limited to analysts now available to individuals at diverse locations.

A series of desktop central processing units combines the attributes of workstations and personal computers into a single platform. The new hardware can bring detailed imagery and graphics manipulation into the hands of more users throughout government and the military at prices comparable to those of mid-level personal computers.

This development especially opens up new intelligence applications. The number of people able to view and manipulate advanced intelligence imagery could increase by an order of magnitude. This capability could change the way crucial information is allocated among users by introducing a whole new level of customers to real-time visual intelligence data.

The system architecture is built around commercial off-the-shelf processors that run on a standard operating system. This permits generational chip advances to be plugged into future versions of the desktop units without major alterations or reconfigurations.

The first two units of this system are described as personal workstations by their manufacturer, Silicon Graphics Incorporated. The Mountain View, California, firm has combined its extensive graphics generation and manipulation experience with off-the-shelf hardware from Intel Corporation, Santa Clara, California, and software from Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, Washington. These desktop devices are designated the 320 and the 540.

The two different platforms allow scalable processing with Intel Pentium II chips running Microsoft Windows NT. The devices are not introducing new features or capabilities as much as they are bringing advanced operations down to the desktop, according to Gary Havenstein, technical workstation manager in Silicon Graphics’ government area.

“It’s not a revolutionary engineering design, it’s an evolutionary engineering design,” he emphasizes. “Anything that runs on NT runs on this box unaltered. All we’re doing is changing the system to speed up those applications that are standard.

“The basic premise of both these machines is that they will introduce a new paradigm in personal computing,” Havenstein declares. “That [new paradigm] is to bring workstation-type graphics down to the personal computer level, both in speed and in the complexity of the application.”

Havenstein explains that current personal computer configurations cannot support either the needed input/output bandwidth or the graphics bandwidth necessary for extensive graphics applications. Moving this capability from high-end machines down to the personal computer level required changing the computer’s fundamental performance. This involved “reassigning” the internal workings, he says.

Common Intel motherboards are a bottleneck for performing real-time graphics, Havenstein states. A conventional personal computer architecture, for example, may feature a PCI 32 bus linking audio, video and graphics random access memories along with a network and a hard drive. This setup would connect with a central processing unit and a 440XX chipset that in turn connects to graphics through an AGP 2X bus.

The two new machines employ a proprietary Silicon Graphics chipset that incorporates three advanced application-specific integrated circuits. These comprise a Cobalt graphics and central processing unit controller, a display engine and a reduced instruction set computing (RISC) input/output processor. The controller connects directly with the memory bus, the Intel Pentium II chips and the graphics display. The input/output processor connects directly with video, audio, an IEEE 1394 Firewire connector, two PCI 64 buses and a 10/100 Base-T fast Ethernet connector.

This core chipset connects with the hard drive through one of the PCI 64 buses, but other machine functions connect directly with the chipset through their own individual bus, thus bypassing the PCI 64. The chipset can handle 1.6 gigabytes per second of input/output, or about 10 times that of the PCI bus. It also provides a memory bandwidth of 3.2 gigabytes per second, or six times that of an AGP bus and offers lower latency than a 440BX chipset, according to Silicon Graphics officials.

Havenstein states that the company’s engineers, using standard hardware and software commodities, redesigned the personal computer system to resemble that of a workstation. The basic machine was designed with price as a determining factor, he relates, while the high-end machine was designed for performance.

The basic machine, the 320, can be equipped with either one or two 350-, 400- or 450-megahertz Pentium II processors. Its synchronous dynamic random access memory can range from 128 megabytes to up to 1 gigabyte. It offers three PCI expansion slots, two additional bays and an Ultra ATA/33 disk drive holding up to 14.4 gigabytes.

It has a 512-kilobit level 2 cache, and its 256-bit wide memory bus provides 3.2 gigabytes per second graphics memory bandwidth. With a scalable graphics memory of approximately 1 gigabyte, the 320 offers a 16-bit or 32-bit, double buffered memory or a 16-bit or 24-bit Z buffer.

Havenstein explains that the three different Pentium II chips offer options to users who seek different applications. For example, customers who want the increased input/output ability without requiring high-speed processing, can opt for the less expensive 350-megahertz chip.

The 320 would serve mainstream personal computing applications. “The current personal computer crop, in my opinion, would be the target market for the 320,” Havenstein offers.

The high-end platform, the 540, can feature one, two or four Pentium II Xeon 450-megahertz chips. Its synchronous dynamic random access memory can run as high as 2 gigabytes, and it offers six full-length PCI 32/64 33-megahertz expansion slots on two 64-bit PCI buses, and three additional bays. It employs an Ultra 2 SCSI SCA disk drive that can store as much as 18 gigabytes.

The 540 can have a 512-kilobyte, 1-megabyte or 2-megabyte level 2 cache, and it offers the same 3.2 gigabytes per second of graphics memory bandwidth as the 320. With its graphics memory scalable up to 2 gigabytes, the 540 also offers the same buffered memory as the 320. Unlike the 320 however, the 540 offers serial digital video input/output tied directly to the input/output co-processor.

For the most part, the 540 is aimed at high-performance operators such as those using UNIX. It would be geared toward more complex graphics applications such as geospatial information systems and intelligence. Uses might encompass heavy-duty video editing, multimedia, computer-aided design and other computer-intensive applications. Havenstein offers that these operations currently run on UNIX machines that cost about five times the price of this unit.

This configuration permits real-time imagery and graphics manipulation previously limited to advanced workstation platforms, Havenstein says. Geospatial information systems are ideal for this device because of the massive amounts of data that are employed through a display. Coordinates and fill patterns, for example, can be moved in real time.

This also applies to intelligence requirements. Most intelligence organizations could transition their common-day applications that currently reside on UNIX workstations to desktops. Other tasks, such as electronic mail, could be ported on the same platform as complex graphics functions. “A user would have UNIX-type functionality performance on an NT Intel box,” Havenstein says.

As a result, more intelligence personnel would be able to apply advanced graphics solutions to their displays. A field intelligence officer equipped with one of these units would be able to view real-time imagery from headquarters or even a sensor platform. The bumps inherent in moving that data through various conversions between the field and the office levels would be eliminated. Instead of static pictures, the field user could see the actual interactive graphics.

These capabilities apply to most geospatial information systems. Instead of merely viewing a static display of a remote sensing image, a desktop user could roam and zoom in real time. This would allow an operator to observe interactive play between various objects on the screen, instead of merely speculating on activities based on a snapshot in time.

“These capabilities heretofore were not possible on personal computers,” Havenstein declares. “And, you certainly cannot send $30,000 workstations throughout the world. These [new] machines make it more possible for folks to use it, because of the price and performance points.”

The largest technological challenge facing developers of these two machines involved integrating the Intel and Microsoft elements, Havenstein allows. This reflects on the company’s previous reliance on UNIX platforms, which allowed it to establish its graphics technologies at the high end. To develop the two new units, it effectively reduced its graphics boards to the personal computer level. “The technology itself is all a derivative of our high-end product line,” he notes.

As more advanced Intel Pentium chips are introduced, production machines will incorporate them. “We’ll just follow the Intel curve on all processor developments,” Havenstein says. “These machines have been designed knowing what’s coming down the line. All the improvements that we’ll see in the next year and a half are already known and digested. We’ll be able to plug in the new technology,” he adds.

The machines’ architecture permits incorporation of processor advances without large-scale reconfigurations. Some operating system changes are likely so that the machines can fully exploit new chip capabilities, but these would be software improvements.

Havenstein emphasizes that the 320 and the 540 are non-point products. The company is committed to a Microsoft/Intel desktop strategy that incorporates off-the-shelf processors and NT software. For the hardware, future generations may emerge as capabilities continue to increase with the technology evolution.

One technology enabler already is being offered with the two machines. The company has designed a new flat-panel monitor to serve the real-time graphics manipulation needs of the 320 and 540. Known as the 1600SW, it employs higher resolution than commercial high-definition television, according to Havenstein.

Its 17.3-inch, thin film transistor, active-matrix, liquid crystal display screen features 1600 pixels x 1024 pixels in a SuperWide format. This allows two 8.5-inch x 11-inch pages to be viewed side-by-side. The unit provides 110 dots per inch at 0.23-millimeter dot pitch, compared to conventional flat panel monitors with less than 90 dots per inch at 0.28- to 0.31-millimeter dot pitch. Havenstein describes its refresh rate as better than that of a cathode ray tube display, with an image comparable to a plasma screen.

The display will work on Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT personal computers as well as on Apple Macintosh and Silicon Graphics O2 machines. With a screen built by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, the display includes a Revolution IV-FP graphics accelerator from Number Nine Visual Technology, Lexington, Massachusetts.

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