For at least the last eight years SGI has been slowly dying a painful death but this seems to be the end of that road.  Yesterday they declared bankruptcy and sold themselves to Rackable Systems for $25 million in cash (at their peak they were doing about $4 billion in revenue per year).  While this news isn’t shocking, it does leave me feeling a little sad and reminiscent of my hacking roots.

Back in 1997 I first visited the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University as a high school senior.  I was so taken back by the things they were doing in their lab that I simply had to get my hands dirty with it.  I ended up attending Iowa State after high school and one of the first things I did was to walk over to the VR lab and get more information about what they were using to build these virtual worlds.  Enter SGI, stage left.

I walked away from the lab that day knowing that these SGI computers played a big part of making these virtual worlds.  At this point in my life the only thing I had ever programmed was my TI-86 calculator and I had never even heard of UNIX based computers.  Somehow none of this discouraged me one bit.  I simply saw a toy that I wanted to play with, end of discussion.

During the summer after my freshman year I started going to these surplus sales that the university had.  One week I walked in and couldn’t believe my eyes, sitting on a shelf was a SGI Indigo Elan.  This was a computer that once sold for tens of thousands of dollars and could now be mine for $225.  It came complete with a 19″ monitor, 64MB of memory, a 500MB hard drive and a R3000 processor at 33MHz.  Not exactly a barn burner in 1999 but like U2 says, “love is blindness”.

So I got the damn thing and had absolutely no clue what to do with it.  The university wiped the hard drive so I had no OS to run on it.  I knew that somehow I had to get a copy of Irix 5.3 to install but that wasn’t an easy thing to come by.  But with the help of some folks at ISU somehow I managed to get the thing to going.  It was now officially my first computer and would end up being the most influential.

I can’t imagine how different my life would be today if that computer was a Windows machine instead of an SGI.  My SGI allowed me explore in depth the wonders of networked computers.  Being able to login to a remote machine, pipe windows over a network and mount network drives.  It fostered my love with the command line which is a fundamental requirement for being a productive geek.  I loved this machine so much that I ended up purchasing two more just like it.

By the end of my second year at ISU I had my three Indigo’s and also a R5k Indy at 175 MHz.  After finding a copy of Irix 6.5 the Indy became my primary workstation.  But my collection didn’t stop there.  Over the next few years I got a couple more Indy’s and a couple of green Indigo 2’s.  Then came my favorite machine, my purple Indigo 2 R10k.  I have so much respect for that machine.

That machine served as the database server for my search engine for two years, handling millions of queries each month with grace.  However it was also the last SGI that I owned.  Eventually my needs outgrew what this pile of hardware could provide.  Just like the next generation of startup companies, I too was making the transition to commodity hardware running Linux.  Exit SGI, stage right.

When I moved out to California I left behind my old flames.  They now reside in my parents basement in Iowa, collecting dust and probably dreaming of being useful once again.  Somehow I can’t imagine the thought of actually getting rid of them.  There is a part of me that would like to fire them up again and just look back at that time in my life.  What was on my desktop?  But I can’t bring myself to do it at this point in my life.  What’s the point of looking backwards when there is so much in front of me?  Besides, it would just make me crave the days when I had so much time to simply learn.

Maybe I’ll compromise and pay a visit to the Computer History Museum and see if they have any old SGI boxes on display.  Not only is the hardware and software they produced of historical significance, the museum now occupies a building that SGI once owned so it only seems appropriate.

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Foo Camp 2008

July 22, 2008

This was the 5th year that I’ve attended Foo Camp and with each year I feel more and more honored to be invited. If you’ve never heard of Foo Camp and you’re too damn lazy to follow the above link, I’ll give you a brief overview.

Tim O’Reilly is the founder of O’Reilly Media and tends to be very insightful when it comes to technology (he’s also one hell of a nice guy). Every year he holds this (un)conference at the O’Reilly campus in Sebastopol and invites interesting people to attend. The conference starts on a Friday and goes through Sunday and is three of the most enlightening days of my year. There isn’t much for lodging in Sebastopol so attendees are invited to camp on the lawn.

One of the greatest things about Foo Camp is that you always feel like the dumbest person there (or at least I do). For years now I’ve wondered how NASA communicates with the vehicles on Mars. The time delay to communicate that far away is so massive that I couldn’t see traditional communications working. I could have done some research online or I could have just attended Foo Camp because I actually meet a person that worked on the communications systems for the Mars projects! Talk about making my day.

Foo Camp is a very special place because no matter where you turn, you are talking to someone that has done something notable. I had some great conversations over dinner with Andy and Dave from Pragmatic Programmers, Jim Zemlin from The Linux Foundation and scores of others as well. Late at night Scott Berkun and I spent hours sharing stories with our mutual friend Bonnie around the fire pit.

As for the talks at the conference, they are always spectacular. I went to a fantastic talk about renewable energy sources and exactly how big of a task we have ahead of us (I might devote an entire post to this topic). Another fantastic session was by Dan Kaminsky where he talked about the huge DNS security hole that has recently been making waves in the tech circles. But in general I find that my most valuable time is spent with one on one or impromptu group conversations.

So as usual, I walked away 100% exhausted. Ze Frank made me laugh just like he always does, catching up with former O’Reilly coworkers is always fantastic and I’m more motivated than ever to continue doing things worthy of Tim’s appreciation with the hopes of getting another invite next year :).