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Silicon Graphics Octane

The Octane was the first UNIX workstation that I started the collection with and I bought it in the early 2000s for a bargain price on ebay. That was shortly after SGI stopped producing their own hardware and switched to Intel / Windows. Many users sold off their old equipment, which however SGI couldn‘t turn into new sales since generic Wintel computers were available from other vendors at a much lower price point. SGI went out of business at around 2006.

Still, vintage Silicon Graphics machines have an appeal of their own, standing out from the masses by their unique case designs that is refreshingly different from that generic black / beige. That, combined with really sophisticated hardware design – they were the ones who invented OpenGL and offered high performance hardware implementations thereof – and the IRIX Unix flavor which IMHO is one of the nicest desktop UNIX experiences is a strong “want have“ factor.

IRIX 6.5.30 desktop running Mac and PC emulation and showing a spinning SGI logo. Desktop background: xearth

Having always been interested in 3D animation which was painfully slow and limited on the Amiga, I was hooked from the late 90s on when movies like Terminator and Jurassic Park featured animations created with SGI computers. Of course, at that time, they were just “unobtainium“ for the mere mortal with prices north of 50.000$.

My Octane has the first series green skins but is otherwise a Octane 2 hardware wise with the newer motherboard, frontplane and PSU. I bought a second Octane a while ago since the original PSU had failed. Part of the package was a genuine Silicon Graphics monitor, keyboard and mouse plus the original documentation which completes the set very nicely.

OS install: SGI supplied their machines with the OS factory preinstalled, re-installing it isn‘t totally straight forward. One reason is that along with the install CDs, a CDROM drive is needed that supports 512 byte sectors and not all of them play nicely. Installing via the network is possible but requires some configuration that involves using the right (old) versions of bootp and tftp. Luckily, there is the “booterizer“ project which packs all of this into a VM image (or onto a RPi) – add the system install files and you‘re ready to go!

Fan upgrade: Recently, I fitted new fans to both the PSU and the harddisk cage since both had become very noisy. I replaced the PSU fan with a Noctua 3000rpm industrial one and the HDD one with a 92mm NF9 silent fan. Due to the high airflow requirement for the PSU fan, the box is still not exactly quiet 😉 There is some discussion on forums re. replacement fans, the conclusion however points to staying on the safe side and going for replacement parts that are close to the original specs since neither the CPU nor the graphics hardware are actively cooled and thus require some airflow to dissipate heat.

Noctua NF-A9 fitted on the HDD backplane

Networking: I didn‘t figure out if DHCP is unavailable with IRIX or just broken, anyway I couldn‘t get it to pull an address from the router. Solution is to configure manually the IP address, DNS and gateway on the usual files – /etc/hosts, /etc/resolv.conf

Mounting shares via NFS does work nicely from a Linux box, however for vintage hardware some security settings need to be lowered (enable old protocols, etc.) Best probably is to do this on a dedicated server for the vintage computer network that ideally should be separated from the rest. I‘ll probably go ahead and do this at some point, for now I‘m using a Linux VM.

Hardware specs:

  • 300MHz R12000 processor
  • 1.2 GB Ram
  • 9 + 35 GB harddrives
  • AIT3 tape drive (not period accurate but useful)
  • SSE graphics, upgradeable to MXE
  • Granite keyboard and mouse
  • Granite 20“ Trinitron monitor

Software:

  • IRIX 6.5.30 operating system
  • SGI Demos 😉
  • Alias Wavefront Maya
  • Freeware

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