Opening the Workstation Floodgates

If there were a last barrier to the acceptance of Windows NT or any last reservation on its use as an operating system among the workstation bigwigs, it's gone now. I watched it happen at an event attended by the mainstream press and most of the PC media. And, although the hand of Microsoft was all over that event, it was in fact an Intel press conference. Intel was kicking off its Pentium Pro CPU, which showed the world that Windows NT is part of the big leagues. Company representatives used NT for all their demonstrations--not UNIX or OS/2 or the much more hyped Windows 95. This has to be a clear signal that NT has not only joined the PC frontrunners, but has begun the journey toward true acceptance.

There were no fireworks at this announcement, but the shot across the bows for the other CPU manufacturers couldn't have been more clear, even if Intel had used a steamroller to flatten old Silicon Graphics Inc., (SGI) CPUs and Macintoshes. Intel representatives claimed, and had the numbers to prove, that the 200-MHz Pentium Pro was faster than any other CPU on the market--including the 300-MHz Digital Equipment Alpha chip, which is considered to be the current leader in the field.

And, for the first time at a press conference, Windows NT was the dominant operating system--a conference where no one announced a single Microsoft product. Well, one other Microsoft application was shown, Softimage, but more on that later. Sun Microsystems was showing off its Hot Java Internet browser tools under Solaris UNIX, but all rest of the applications anyone demonstrated that day ran on unmodified Windows NT 3.51.

Intel on Top?
One of the main reasons the RISC CPU manufacturers have gotten so far in the work-
station market has been speed: Big applications need all the MIPS they can get, and preferably all the MIPS they can get on one CPU. Multiple CPUs help if programs are multithreaded. (You'll hear a lot more about this in the future.) Most tasks, though, still don't break down into subtasks too well: For example, a spreadsheet can be calculated only one way and a picture can be drawn only one part at a time.

Until now, Intel has never even been close to matching the computing speed of the MIPS, Alpha, SPARC, or PowerPC families per CPU. If Intel does have a credible product, that seriously changes the game. Only iconoclasts want to keep their computing equipment from interoperating. If a PC can run applications as fast as a UNIX workstation, it offers a powerful argument for converting an entire company to Windows NT instead of bothering with non-Intel NT.

Now, those performance figures for the Pentium Pro need to be taken with a grain of salt. First, they are for hardware that's just started shipping. As of that press conference on November 1, 1995, only the staff at Intergraph would actually sell you a computer based on the Pentium Pro. A check of the big names in PCs showed no one who was even willing to commit to a firm shipping date. And only Intel representatives know how fast they can ramp up the production of their new chip. Prices will be stratospheric for at least six months.

Second, the performance benchmarks Intel touted were 32-bit, not the mix of 16- and 32-bit applications that most of us use. That's probably because the Pentium Pro doesn't run 16-bit applications significantly faster than the Pentium. The company demonstrators were careful to use only NT and other 32-bit code in their displays. After all, the Pentium Pro was announced 10 years to the month after the 386. When designing the P6, or Pentium Pro, Intel's engineers probably bet that DOS and 16-bit Windows applications would have faded by now.

Third, the rest of the industry is not at a standstill. We're going to see the UltraSPARC and the MIPS 10000 CPUs released soon: Sun and SGI will attempt to leapfrog the competition again. There's reason to believe the Alpha CPU family has another order of magnitude of speed in it, too. But Intel President Andy Grove said the company has spent $16 billion to date on its processors: Essentially no one can compete with that investment.

Fourth, the UNIX market has an installed base too big to ignore. An entire generation of programmers and engineers grew up with UNIX, and they won't give it up easily.

Nonetheless, after this press conference, anyone who is considering buying a technical workstation, or any other high-value RISC-based system, must at least consider Windows NT on the Pentium Pro.

Applications to Admire
Because handing chips around the room wouldn't be very photogenic, the Intel press conference was mostly a demonstration of programs that used the Pentium Pro to good effect. One of the most impressive was a demonstration of "Confocal Microscopy'' by Dr. Mary Bronner of the University of Washington School of Medicine. She's a cancer researcher, specializing in colon cancer, and her particular work is isolating where particular factors reside in tumor cells. She had data from multiple 2D scans of tumor cells: The amount of stain quantified the tumor growth.

That work alone was pretty revolutionary--the cells didn't have to be sliced up, frozen, or subjected to big doses of X-rays to be examined. But the part that involved Windows NT and the Pentium Pro was the graphical display of the numbers from the scanner with more blue representing more tumor body. That's the most elementary use of "Visual Computing," a fancy term for looking at data graphically.

Then came a showcase NT application: a preview of Softimage, the high-powered animation program, now in late beta testing. Softimage on NT will be big PC-industry news. For now you've seen its work on everything from the TV program "Reboot" to particle animation in "Apollo 13." Softimage previously ran only on SGI workstations, but Tim Horne, Softimage's west-coast lead animator, said he found the application ran faster on a 200-MHz Pentium Pro than on an SGI workstation that cost twice as much.

As he talked, Horne created a geometric animated character and a set of stairs. He turned on the program's "gravity" and "dropped" the character, which then bounced down the stairs. All of this was rendered on the screen in real-time, and the whole thing took maybe four minutes. My conclusion: Microsoft plans to make a big push into the growing areas of graphics and animation, and NT is a serious part of those plans. (Separately, I asked the Softimage people about this, and they insisted development was continuing on SGI and NT. Yes, they said, Softimage would appear on non-Intel NT.)

A little while later, Autodesk representatives showed off their not-quite-announced 3D Studio Max animation program with similar results. Expect 3D Studio Max and Softimage to duke it out with Lightwave 3D for the computer-animation market--all found on Windows NT.

And speaking of new solutions, Intel announced a contract with the Department of Energy for a 9000-CPU Pentium Pro machine to simulate nuclear weapons tests. Intel's Grove joked that this contract showed the company could handle scalability "from one to 9000 CPUs."

These product demonstrations, and the others that followed, would most likely have been impossible if developers expected to run them on previous PCs. They were fluid and fast: The doctor could move the graphical dataset around at will, and the designer didn't have to pause during the creative process. Much of that enhanced performance is certainly to the credit of the Pentium Pro's speed, but a portion should go to Windows NT because it offers an operating system sophisticated enough to support these sorts of programs. And, in both the Intel demonstrations and the Intergraph ones that followed, NT was a featured player, if not the star of the show.

Big Win For Users
Intel went to great lengths to ensure complete backward compatibility so that any program written for previous CPUs would run on the Pentium Pro. And, although I'm sure some obscure DOS programs will fail, any real Windows application, especially 32-bit ones, should run fine.

The last time any company went to this much expense to stay 100% compatible with its existing base of programs was during the mid 1960s, when IBM's 360 family began its domination of the computing landscape--and continued to dominate it for 15 years. The results of that decision, where IBM officials bet the company on a line of computers that scaled from a single user to many, are still being felt today. Intel's CPUs have been top dog for more than 15 years and have a larger market share than IBM did in its heyday. Their dominance seems even firmer than IBM's did.

One big reason the Pentium Pro is so fast is its onboard cache. Although previous CPUs have been multichip--notably the Clipper CPU, now being phased out by Intergraph--the Pentium Pro is the first CPU I've ever seen with onboard Level 2 cache. All that cache right next to the processor is a huge speed advantage: That's the working definition of "tightly coupled."

The Pentium Pro is completely backward compatible: Should people recompile to take advantage of it? When the Pentium itself was announced, Intel claimed a 10% to 20% speed improvement for programs that were recompiled to execute instructions in the "right" order, compared to programs originally written for the 386 or 486. I remembered that and asked in the Intel press conference about speed advantages. Intel representatives told me the same sort of figure: 10% to 20%, at a guess. It'll be interesting to see if Windows NT Version 3.6 or 4.0 will be customized for the Pentium Pro. I suspect that decision hinges on a version of Microsoft C++ that is customized for the Pentium Pro, rather than on more work on NT itself.

Competitor's Nightmare
After the Intel press conference, Intergraph announced its new line of workstations based on the Pentium Pro. If Intel was hinting at playing in SGI's realm, Intergraph was taking dead aim at it. Jim Meadlock, president and CEO of Intergraph, said that the battle of UNIX vs. NT was over, and NT had already won. Later, he amended his statement, saying that there was room in the market for UNIX. Intergraph has long had a foot in both the UNIX and NT camps, with software to bridge the gap, but the company is moving both feet toward NT.

And Intergraph officials announced hardware to match their boasts: The TDZ line is more than warmed-over PCs, and, from a quality and support standpoint, SGI has reason to worry. All this power comes at a price: The base TDZ-300 is $12,900, complete with SCSI hard disk, spare Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) slots, 32MB of RAM, and the new GLZ video card. That graphics card is the most exciting part of Intergraph's machine and will turn more than a few heads from the animation and modeling communities. The GLZ video card is a PCI two-board set, and it's a true OpenGL accelerator. This proves to be perfect for Windows NT, which uses OpenGL for all its 3D graphics. Expect to see the card, or the five custom chips that are at its heart, in licensed high-end graphics boards.

Intergraph had an applications hall, with NT running on its newest and best. Many were military-oriented: One was a maintenance training system for the M-1A tank and used two GLZ1 video cards for a dual display. The most visually impressive application was the LASCAUX project, a virtual walk-through of Lascaux, the cave in southwest France known for its Paleolithic wall paintings and engravings. All the art was viewable in a model true to the original topology of the cave. The program used every bit of the 34MB of texture RAM the GLZ1T offered. LASCAUX's project leader, Dr. Benjamin Britton, pointed out that you can't run this application even on an SGI Reality Engine: There are just too many textures to display.

If Intergraph were to ally with a larger PC company to gain manufacturing capacity, the two could move "down-market" very quickly into the area traditionally dominated by Compaq, Digital, and IBM PCs. Even if Intergraph doesn't pair with anyone, it is a company to be watched.

Brave New World ... Again
Windows NT truly became a player in the workstation world some time ago, but it became a well-known player at that press conference. At the moment, there's literally no application running on a Sun or SGI PC that couldn't be ported to Windows NT. Couple that with the thousands of traditional Windows 3.x and DOS applications running today. And, while they'll bring out new hardware and push the envelope even harder, the traditional workstation companies can't ignore the evidence that NT is a competitor all the way up-market and down.

Contact Info
Intel * 800-628-8686
Intergraph * 800-763-0242