Today, in a move that will shape the next few years in high end compositing SGi announces a whole new set of workstation and supercomputer products completely replacing Octane and Onyx3 with Tezro and Onyx4. Fxguide has in-depth analysis of of the platforms and what it means to you, the professional compositing community. In part one, we have an overview with exclusive interviews with key staff both managerial and technical in both SGI and Discreet. In th

Today, Monday July 14th, SGI launched the Chimera workstation project under the name Tezro. Tezro replaces Octane 2 workstations, which are the current hardware platform for Flame, Flint and Smoke.

The Tezro is a bigger unit than the Octane and comes in 2 units, a desktop form factor and a rack mounted unit. Maurice Patel, Discreet Canada, comments “We currently anticipate shipping point releases for flame 8 and smoke 5 with support for the Tezro platform within 30 days of when SGI will ship all final workstation components (including graphics and DM video subsystems). SGI currently plans to ship these around the same date as the main Tezro workstation.” Only the desktop unit is planned to be supported by Discreet. “The rack mounted Tezro is not intended to be supported by Discreet at this time” he adds.

The actual Tezro form factor is dark purple and it comes in 1, 2 or 4 procs. The single processor version has only one R14000 600Mhz Chip. The 2 processor machine has 2 or 4 R16000 700Mhz chips and 8 PCI slots (7 free) on 3 separate buses. The only difference between the 2 and 4 processor version is that there is an extra 2-proc board added. This makes the 4 processor version a very cost effective option in the product range.

Tezro uses the V12 Graphics and DM2-DM5 boards. This is significant since it is the same graphics engine used by the Octane 2, which makes software porting easy, but it means that the Tezro has significantly less texture memory than had been hoped, and much less than the current Onyx 3. The V12 graphics has 128M of Texture Ram (although in reality this translates to only 108M usable – 20 M required elsewhere), compared to 1 gig on the IR4 Onyx graphics boards.

Tezro has 7 free PCIX slots on 3 buses. The multi-bus PCIX is a major advantage of the product, if you compare it to the new Apple G5 – you would see that the G5 provides only the one free PCIX bus – a major issue for the G5 in the compositing workspace. There is digital audio on board, and the system can have up to 8 Gig of RAM.

The performance of the Tezro is very interesting. There are many subjective measures of performance for any such system. Examining Tezro as purely a compositing machine, the machine is a winner. The V12 in the Tezro now has more bandwidth to the graphics, it can do dual 4:4:4 RGB HD in real-time. The IR4 in the onyx has more texture RAM but it is hard in the onyx to keep the data up to the graphics pipeline, so in many cases the Tezro will outperform the onyx 3 with IR4 graphics. While benchmarks have not been yet logged, it is believed that a very heavy action setup would still be faster on an Onyx 350, due to the extra texture RAM, but the Tezro’s performance will “almost match” the Onyx 3, and certainly outperform an Onyx 2. Patel points out “this is the same graphics as can already be found in the Octane2, however the performance will be superior in the sense that the graphics were somewhat under-utilized in the Octane2. The higher bandwidth of the Tezro means we can get data into graphics at a much faster rate than before, so we can push the v12 much harder in Tezro than in an Octane2 – one of the key advantages to Tezro is the holistic design that extends through the entire data path from disk through to graphics”

So what does this mean for you ? The Tezro can not only provide 2 HD 4:4:4 streams in realtime, but it can provide 1 single 12bit 2K film stream in real time, not even an Onyx 350 can do that, (except in limited form from RAM).

According to Bill Trestrail, Managing Director SGI Australia, the pricing of Tezro worldwide will be “20% lower than octane 2”, but according to fxguide’s sources at Discreet, when configured with everything needed for a flame system, the price very closely matches that of the current Octane 2. So in many situations, performance will be better than the Onyx platform at a fraction of the price.

The software for flint, flame and inferno is either single processor (flint) or multiple processor so buy a 2 proc machine as a flame and simply add the extra processors to obtain performance close to the Onyx. Given that the 4 processor machine is only 10% – 12 % more than the 2 processor machine, Bill Roberts, Systems Product Manager of Discreet “expects most flame customers will opt for the 4 proc machine”.

According to fxguide’s estimates, the current entry-level MX price for Smoke is US$75,000, which is currently discounted down to approximately $60,000. Tezro is the ideal Smoke machine, providing dual real time HD streams and extremely fast performance. So it is expected that the Smoke product line will shift to the current US$150,000 larger Octane Smoke Systems – re-priced to the entry level position and the Tezro Smoke being offered for approximately US$150,000. Discreet has yet to release final pricing.

The current price of Flame is approximately US$265,000 and Inferno is priced at about US$520,000 + storage. With Discreet halving the price of storage at NAB, 2 hours of high speed HD storage would add only approximately US$15,000 to the system price. The big price advantage is that a 4-processor option is now available for a desktop unit.

The 2 and 4 processor option offers “over 3 times the price/performance of the Octane 2”, believes Trestrall. Unlike the Dual Apple G5 which offers separate buses for each processor, all 4 Tezro 700Mhz MIPS chips share the same bus, but it is now “60% faster than the Octane 2″ responds Trastrall. In terms of raw speed, the actual RISC MIPS 700Mhz chips compare well with the latest WINTEL and G5 Processors. “I believe they (the RISC chips) are every bit as comparable with the best available elsewhere”, comments Discreet’s Roberts. Interestingly this also means Flame software licences can return to being 4 proc machines, as all recent 4 proc discreet machines have been Onyx Infernos. This poses an interesting issue for Discreet and its customers alike. Given the lack of significant feature differentiation in software, the line between flame and inferno products is now wafer thin. This could be a significant issue for any company with a recently purchased Inferno, as a new Tezro-flame would be half the price, matching in performance and also be a matching 4 processor machine.

In addition to the release of Tezro, SGI is also releasing the Onyx4. Onyx4 has a parallelized graphics pipeline, a radical new approach to scalable parallel graphics that was code named the Voyager graphics program. The Onyx4 represents the same computing modules (CX bricks) as the Onyx 350 but features a new graphics subsystem. In many respects the Onyx4 isn’t a linear step from the Onyx 3. The Onyx 350 was released just a week after NAB and represented a significant 40% drop in cost of ownership for Inferno users. The 350 replaced the 3200 Onyx 3, and it included the newest IR4 graphics with 1 Gig of texture memory, unmatched even in the onyx 4. Instead of pushing on to an IR5, SGI has taken a completely different approach.

The primary issue with the Onyx4 is just how easily application programmers can adapt to use the new Parallel graphics pipeline. SGI’s Trestrail asserts, ” The API will be doing the parallel processing – meaning that most applications will NOT need a major rewrite to run on the ONYX 4″. Fxguide is not so sure, and Discreet is proceeding carefully, reserving their judgment on the Onyx4 port until they have had time to certify it. One theory for this differing option is that the applications already running on the Infinite Performance graphics in the Onyx do not need any re-writing, but as Discreet never supported the Infinite Performance graphics option, that work is still ahead for them.

When we asked Discreet directly about supporting the Inferno on this first generation of Onyx4 parallel graphics, Patel responded “the voyager graphics subsystem for Onyx4 is a totally new graphics type and unrelated to current IR generation graphics so we need to evaluate its implications for inferno. At this point in time we are evaluating how much work this involves or what the performance will be so cannot make any guarantees as to when this will be supported or even if this will be immediately supported.”

Discreet does have early access to the technology and there is a system at Discreet. But initial reports are mixed, “It would appear at this point in time that IR4 graphics still give a superior Discreet experience – i.e. have stronger capabilities than first generation Voyager graphics as far as Discreet systems requirements are concerned. However, we do anticipate that Voyager will open up new and advanced graphics capabilities in the future”, comments Patel.

IR 4 graphics itself is relatively new and is extremely impressive. While Dual IR3 boards would provide you with 8 2K film layers ‘under the tip of your digitising pen, – a single IR4 board would provide 32 x 2K film layers in comparision. It is easy to see why the new Voyager ‘Ultimate Vision’ graphics has its work cut out for it to match the performance.

Fxguide understands that SGI internally believes that the Voyager graphics may be better suited to virtual set type solutions. Bill Roberts and Marc Petit (head of R&D) have been working with Kevin McLaughlin VP of SGI Systems Engineering to ensure that SGI fully understands what Discreet’s needs are (in terms of graphics I/O, memory and OpenGL processing capabilities are for future versions of this next-generation graphics subsystem), so the path forward is no where as clear as it is with Tezro.

Inferno is still is key product for Discreet, and staffing levels are estimated to be very strong in all the main areas of System products, but when asked directly about the level of R&D on Inferno Patel states: “We don’t publicly disclose the size of any of our teams (Engineering, marketing, sales etc.) at Discreet – suffice it to say that the team is well staffed, both the engineering and QA teams have grown in the last year”. What is known is that as the new Toxik product line is no longer the replacement for the systems products – there are significant numbers of senior engineers to work on such major projects, and the Systems product group is estimated to remain the major financial backbone of Discreet, and a successful profitable cash flow center for Discreet. “We are also excited to add 10-bit support to our applications that will offer even more compelling performance/functionality for our client’s workflows. Discreet has also shown interest in pushing beyond 12-bit OpenGL graphics with the possible integration of software based rendering such as Mental Ray – as shown during the flame technology demo at our NAB 2003 User Group event”.

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