Sunday, October 18, 2020

New Silicon Graphics Octane has arrived!

I finally own a Silicon Graphics system! These machines were so expensive when they were new, but nowadays you can pick them up quite cheaply. I picked up an Octane system from a Australian seller, and I now have it working. Let's take a closer look at this amazing system.

These systems cost a fortune when they were for sale. Seriously.

Back in 1998 these systems were selling for $20,000 for the entry level 225Mhz R10000 model with 128MB memory and 4GB SCSI disk! 

They used a 64bit MIPS R10000/R120000 or R14000 processor which ran a 64bit Irix Unix OS. In 1998! My PC, Mac and Amiga were 16 bit computers at that time.

Higher models like the 250Mhz model sold for $40,000.

Check out this old article from C|Net about it:

Just wow. With those kind of prices (and me bring a Uni student at that time), it was just a fantasy to ever see, let alone own one of these machines.

I remember going to an electronics show in Perth at the time, when they had the Octane and O2 on display running Maya and AutoCAD, and the sales guys were very keen to stop young obviously poor people like me having a go on it. I just looked from a distance and dismissed it as something I would never be able to afford.

Now, in 2020, the world has changed. High end workstations are much cheaper now, running on Intel 64bit hardware. Still 64bit after all these years. Shows how far ahead of the pack SGI was back then. These SGI systems were basically servers in their design philosophy, but as an end-user workstation!

SGI lost it's core customer base in the early 2000's when Maya was ported to much cheaper Intel PC's could no longer compete as they lost their performance advantage as MIPS eventually fell behind. They tried selling 64bit Intel systems (without the amazing MIPS based architecture) but no longer had the advantage over their other competition who sold cheaper systems. They sunk completely back in 2009, HP bought what was left and I believe are no more in 2020.

But the amazing hardware SGI released survives, and fortunately due to it's niche original user base (which is no longer interested in these systems), they are very cheap to buy compared to their original pricing. This one cost AUD$800. Maybe I paid too much, but it is quite a system for the money, and I can finally see what the fuss was all about back then...

It arrived well packaged. It took me a long time to unpack it, which I was very grateful for as the system appeared to survive the trip with no damage. 

The top half of the front case opens on a funky plastic hinge which I can see would be quite fragile. When opened you can see the two external facing slightly taller than normal 3.5 inch bays (I believe the missing cover bay originally used to house an optional SCSI Tape drive for backups), and the power button.

I was originally looking for the lower end O2 system, which is kind of the "baby" SGI machine, but it is much slower, and doesn't feature the same amazing internal setup of the Octane.

I could only find them overseas, and the cost was not much different to this Octane (once I negotiated the price) so I went for this.

This system is a R12000 MIPS system running at 400Mhz (Single processor), with 2GB memory (amazing for a machine in 1998), and an EMXI graphics card module installed. This is the highest spec graphics card you can put in the Octane 1. There is a VPro module for the later Octane 2 and the higher end Onyx SGI workstations. That Onyx system used to cost $75,000 and up. Wow, really.

One limitation of the Octane system is the lack of 5.25 bays, which means the CDROM/DVD cannot be mounted internally. I will need to trace a SGI SCSI DVDROM/CDROM external drive to connect to it. This drive needs to be a Toshiba drive for compatibility to the CD format used on SGI OS CD's, which can't apparently be booted from on PC CDROM drives. This is a bit pricey and hard to find too. I actually have a suitable spare Toshiba internal CDROM drive from my Amiga system which should be compatible, but need to track down a suitable external SCSI CDROM case to put it in. 

For now I plan to rely on network connectivity to get software and data from my other systems onto this one.

There are two quick release buttons on the top of the case that then allow you to lower the front case, revealing the internal SCSI SCA connector backplane in the Octane.

There is one SGI 73GB SCSI drive installed in the lower bay using a Drive caddy/sled. Much like servers, these are designed to be easily swappable, but it does mean locating a SGI drive caddy/sled if I want to add additional drives, which I would like to do. I'll keep an eye out for one.

Not sure what the connector at the bottom right is for yet...I don't have a manual unfortunately. 

Here is a closeup of the easily removable SGI drive caddy/sled with the 73GB SCSI disk inside. 

Turning the system around to the back, you can see the very unique SGI 8 port Crossbar switch backplane design. The mainboard, graphics cards and other modules are house in a caddy and connect to one of these ports, and can be completely swapped out easily by pulling the modules out from the rear. The Case itself does not need to be opened. The mainboard has a handle to assist with it given the size of it.

This main motherboard module in the Octane has Digital SPDIF audio ports in/out, RCA ports in/out, Coaxial digital in/out - nice:

The system is made in Switzerland according to the label on the back. How rare is that! 

It also has a external 68 pin SCSI port connector, network port, a port I am not sure what it is for, 2 PS/2 ports for keyboard/mouse and two serial ports at the bottom.

In the middle section is a PCI riser cage, which is an option you can install in the Octane to have PCI cards in it.

On the right side is the EMXI graphics card module, which has a proprietary DB-13W3 Display connector, which I needed to buy an adapter for to output to standard VGA out:

I hate proprietary connectors. Apple love them, and use them to charge whatever they like for converters that should not be necessary. SGI did the same thing with this connector. 

Here is the 13W3 to VGA converter I bought:

I took the PS/2 Compaq keyboard and mouse from my neighbouring 1Ghz Pentium 3 PC to use on the Octane temporarily as below. I have located an original Silicon Graphics keyboard and mouse and they are on their way to me soon!

In the meantime I powered on and the machine rumbles to life. Certainly isn't quiet but not server noisy either.

Welcome to Octane, indeed:

The lights on the front change from POST red to orange and display the initial boot menu:

Close up of the Boot menu:

After booting up and logging into the machine as root, the IRIX 6.5 desktop appears, with the SGI System Manager application, top processes and small console window open and ready for me to run stuff.

My Octane system's configuration:

The Icon Catalog view is nice. Shows the launch icons for various programs, divided into multiple tabs at the bottom which you can easily switch between:

I configured the network settings to get the SGI Octane online. Fortunately the Irix focused websites have carefully continued using older HTML standards so they work with the very old web browsers included with Irix.

I set to work downloading Irix software form the internet to try out on my machine:

I also received a separate SGI Software library CD set containing the full Irix 6.5.21 CD set, which will enable me to re-install the system from CD.

One issue is that I don't have a SCSI CD drive. The intention is to setup the FTP install option which allow you to install the OS on the Silicon Graphics Octane over the network. It needs a specially prepared Ubuntu machine to make this work. I plan to try this when I have another SCSI disk to experiment on.

I tried my first installation, some software called Cosmo Create 1.0.3. To install on Irix, commercial software uses the System Manager, which has a Software manager tool to install software:

I next got the options to install with the setup of Cosmo Create - the install window is great and has all the info you need:

Installation underway:

There is a few license agreements to agree with - here for Adobe Reader 4.0:

Install completed successfully:

Now I can see the program icons in the Icon Catalog window, but it complains on launch that I need to set some parameters to be able to run as root it wasn't immediately obvious how I supposed to do that:

Eventually I worked it out:

Yeah I know, I shouldn't run as root, etc etc. Just wanted to play with it quickly and I haven't setup another user on the machine yet.

I tried to install OpenOffice on the Octane:

Unfortunately it needs GNU tar and some other dependencies, like a number of other games and demos I tried to run...

I will play more with it later - I have run out of time this weekend.

It is really great to finally have an Silicon Graphics Octane system:

As mentioned I will explore this machine in more detail soon. I plan to get another SCSI hard disk and attempt an install from scratch so I can learn how to build one of these machines myself. 

I still have a lot to learn, but that is the best part right of playing with new systems like this, right? :-)


  1. You can get the manual here:

    It's over 300 pages so think before hitting print :)

    1. I hope this is the manual you are looking for. If not, let me know what you do need and I'll root through my shelf to get it for you.

    2. Thank you very much for this! :-)

  2. Nice. You should try track down a SSI or ESSI even if it doesn't have TRAMS and set it up as dual head for xinerama fun. :) Also you can drive the software installation program from the command line. It's called "inst" and you can point it at a dir and go. I dunno, I'm used to it there so it's fun to watch someone using this graphically :> should have 6.5.30 or at least overlays. Make sure you're running in 24bit mode. Xsgi has private colour maps so 8bit 256 colours "per window" which is quite different to vanilla Xservers on PC's and other platforms. It's easy to think you're in 24bit mode and aren't. Depending on at which point the O/S was installed and overlays applied, it may still be in 8bit. Yep, they're fun. You can also completely boot them from NFS if you want to experiment without voiding that New Octane Smell.

    1. Thanks for the tips. As I get more familiar with the Octane I will be more adventurous and try some more new things out.

  3. Congrats on the Octane! I picked up an Indy 5k system years ago and had fun playing with it. With a pending move to a new home back 10 years ago or so I posted the system locally and a univ. student was really interested in unix boxen and I pretty much gave it to him - he was thrilled probably some tech mogul now lol. Anyhow they are a lot of fun a impressive - be sure to look at Reddit for some good SGI groups for support.

  4. Thanks for the tips about Reddit groups. I'll check it out.