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SGI's Origin 200 Server

February 1999

SGI's Origin 200 Server

Available in various configurations, including Web servers, this midnight-blue system can keep your surfs up around the clock.

Ralph Barker

This month we examine the Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) Origin 200, the little brother of the Origin 2000 behemoth we reviewed last October ("SGI's Origin 2000 Server," p. 49). The Origin 200 (O200), one of the company's most popular products, is a leading contender in the price/performance segment of the low-end UNIX server market--including multiple Web hosts, media streaming applications, and networks of small business servers that require remote administration capabilities--being in a bare-silicon bout with Sun's Enterprise 450 for leadership in that ring. The basic configuration of the O200 is either a single- or dual-processor system in a deskside tower chassis. The single-tower configuration can be upgraded with a second tower, however, to provide up to four 225MHz Mips R10000 64-bit processors, using a CrayLink interconnect. For this review, we took a dual-processor, single-tower configuration, and performed the upgrade to a four-CPU system.

Origin 200Of Note

As you can see from our photographs of the O200, the system continues SGI's tradition of striking industrial design. The deep blue color and unconventional shape of the cabinet differ substantially from rectangular and boringly beige tower designs. The front-panel access door is a metallic screen that both adds to the appearance of the unit and provides almost unrestricted air flow for system cooling. The swing-out feet at the bottom of the cabinet improve lateral stability and raise the unit a couple of inches off the floor.

Although the onboard circuitry of the O200 differs from its big brother, the Origin 2000, the O200's architecture still borrows heavily from that of the Origin 2000. The O200, like the larger system, is a ccNUMA design. While the Origin 2000 is made up of modules, each of which can hold up to four nodes of two processors each, the O200 can be thought of as a single-node module. The ccNUMA architecture lets you add a second tower with another pair of processors, should your processing requirements expand. Additionally, if more expansion slots are needed beyond those in the two towers, or greater interprocessor I/O bandwidth is required, a GIGAchannel expansion cabinet can be added.

The O200 can be rackmounted after removing the stylish exterior skins of the unit. A couple of factory-configured racks are included that add to the flexibility of the O200. In one such configuration, for example, a pair of four-processor, dual-tower O200s can be combined with a GIGAchannel expansion unit and failover software to provide a highly available four-CPU server. Or, for server or render-farm purposes, a group of separate O200s can be stacked in a rack.


Installation of the O200 is simple and straightforward. Similar to most small systems, it runs on conventional AC power and consumes about 720 watts per tower. Thus, no special power considerations are required in most cases. Ventilation flows from front to back, so you will need an unobstructed airflow. A single-tower system requires about six inches of clearance at the rear of the unit, and a dual-tower configuration needs about eight inches. Nothing unusual about the O200 in that respect.

If you are running a dual-tower configuration, with or without the GIGAchannel expansion cabinet, you need to ensure that all of the system components are plugged into the same grounded power supply or circuit. The CrayLink design is particularly sensitive to grounding, and any ground potential difference of more than 500 millivolts (0.5 volts) can damage the system. The typical installation connects both towers to the same 2KVA UPS, however, so the ground-potential sensitivity is not actually a practical problem.

SGI ships the O200 with the operating system and bundled application packages (such as WebForce) preinstalled, further simplifying the installation and setup. Similar to most servers, the O200 does not include a graphics adapter, so setup must be accomplished with a serial terminal as the system console, or by connecting a PC or workstation to serve as the serial console. The O200 owner's guide includes detailed instructions for connecting SGI workstations and setting up the workstation's serial port for communications.

One unique feature of the O200 is the module system controller (MSC) that is accessed via an auxiliary (AUX) port on the rear of the system. The MSC provides hardware-level diagnostics and management for such things as checking fan operation or the internal temperature of the system. The AUX port is also a serial connection, so you can attach the AUX port cable to the same workstation that functions as the system console. For remotely managed systems, you can attach the AUX port to a modem to check operation or turn the system on or off through the modem connection.

Printed documentation for the O200 consists of an installation poster and two wirebound manuals: an owner's guide and a maintenance guide. The owner's guide covers installation and basic operation of the system, along with some administrative tasks. The maintenance guide goes into greater detail on the installation of system expansion options, troubleshooting procedures, and the like. Both manuals are well-written and have copious illustrations of procedures discussed in the text. Additional online documentation comes in the form of traditional online UNIX manual pages and the Iris InSight library. Most SGI manuals are available on the Web at and can be viewed online in a browser, or downloaded as PostScript or PDF files for local printing. You also can order printed manuals, of course, through your SGI sales representative. The Iris InSight library continues to be one of the best examples of how to structure online documentation.

The O200 ships with Irix 6.5 preinstalled. This release of Irix is the first in some time to cover the entire SGI line, and it supports all the current systems, along with older models going back to the Indy, based on the Mips R4000 chip. Irix 6.5 is available in either of two configurations: Advanced Workstation Environment and Advanced Server Environment. Although most of the features are similar between the two, the latter includes support for Computer Associates Unicenter TNG. In addition to a wide range of OS features that are consistent with the Irix heritage, v. 6.5 achieves a "guaranteed" one millisecond latency for real-time applications on Origin and Onyx2 systems.

For those unfamiliar with Irix, it is an SVR4-based UNIX implementation, and UNIX 95-certified by The Open Group. This latest release supports up to 128 processors, 256GB of physical memory, and 82GB/sec sustained I/O, according to SGI specifications. Release 6.5 also includes more error-recovery code than previous releases, and the additional code lets applications recover from various error conditions. With Irix 6.5's checkpoint/restart facility, for example, you can periodically checkpoint the status of an application (and associated data), and, should an error occur, restart from the checkpointed state.

Additional management tools have also been added to Irix 6.5, including Enlighten Software's EnlightenDSM Basic for centralized management, and RoboInst, a new tool for automated network installations of Irix 6.5 and future updates. For cross-platform interoperability, Irix 6.5 includes various features and packages, including NFS, Novell NetWare Client, Samba, Xinet AppleTalk, and drive support for mounting PC or Macintosh diskettes, Zip drives, and CD-ROMs from the Irix Interactive Desktop. A single-client copy of TotalNET Advanced Server from Syntax is also included with the system. Although we did not have an opportunity to test all of these features, we found Irix 6.5 to be rock-solid during our review.


Each tower in an O200 configuration can hold between 64MB and 2GB RAM (4GB maximum per tower), and up to 109.2GB of disk (218.4GB per system). Each tower also includes two 5¼-inch, and six 3½-inch drive bays, two serial ports, one parallel port, and one 10/100Base-TX Ethernet port. There are two internal Ultra SCSI buses--one Fast-Wide and one Fast-Narrow. External storage can be added via an optional interface card appropriate for the type of storage (Fibre Channel or Ultra SCSI, for example). Three PCI expansion slots (32- or 64-bit) come with each tower. Additional PCI and SGI XIO slots are provided in the optional GIGAchannel expansion cabinet. Although the memory slots are on the motherboard, CPUs are on a plug-in daughter card, so it is relatively easy to upgrade from single to dual-CPU configurations in each tower.

Expanding from a two-CPU single-tower configuration to four CPUs involves adding a second system tower. Any O200 can operate in either master or slave mode, however, so four-CPU configurations can be built and torn down as processing requirements dictate. Adding a second tower, as we did during our testing, is quite simple. After turning off the existing system, simply remove the side panel on the new unit. Behind a small access panel is a DIP switch that controls whether the unit is in master or slave mode.

Inside the O200

Inside the O200, plus the CrayLink connection.

The factory default is master mode on all systems, so the switch on the slave unit must be moved into the slave position. The access cover and side panel can then be replaced. The CrayLink cable and a common ground cable are installed next, and the master power switches on the rear panels of the units turned on. Once the units are connected through the CrayLink cable, the front-panel power button on the master unit controls power to both towers through the MSC. Powering up the master unit thus turns power on for both cabinets, and starts the boot process. The system automatically detects the additional CPUs, memory, and disk storage, and proceeds to boot as a four-CPU system. No muss, no fuss.

A note of caution to readers who might be upgrading an older O200: older versions of the firmware occasionally develop a timing problem when the slave MSC starts a few milliseconds before the master MSC does. That error can cause the boot process to loop, as both MSCs reset upon encountering the error. In such cases, the slave unit's MSC memory must be cleared, and the systems restarted. If you encounter such behavior, it is best to upgrade your firmware, even though you can work around the problem with a bit of technical support. Firmware revision level 6.9 or later is what you should have. That version of firmware has code that automatically resolves the conflict, allowing the boot process to complete in the normal manner.

SGI offers several O200-based bundled solutions, including conventional file servers, backup servers, WebForce bundles for regular Web servers, WebForce MediaBase for media streaming requirements, and rendering bundles for final scene production of films. The WebForce bundle included on our test system provides conventional Web services through Netscape Enterprise Server software and SGI's WebSetup and WebMeter management software.


To test the performance of the O200, we ran our usual battery of SPECrate95 benchmarks, first in the single-tower, dual-CPU configuration, then again after adding the second tower and two additional CPUs.

Using the same compiler options that SGI used in its published results, our SPECrate95 tests (run in multiuser mode, with all system daemons and the Web server running) produced scores of 316 and 580 for SPECfp_rate95 (two-CPU and four-CPU) and 232 and 459 for SPECint_rate95. Our four-CPU results were only slightly less than SGI's tests that were done in single-user mode with the same-speed processors: 614 for SPECfp_rate95 and 461 for SPECint_rate95. These results compare to those of Sun's Enterprise 450 server, running 296MHz UltraSPARC II CPUs, of 338 (two-processor) and 585 (four-processor) for SPECfp_rate95, and 229 and 422 (two and four processors, respectively) for SPECint_rate95. Hewlett-Packard's HP 9000 model K460 produced scores of 297 for SPECfp_rate95 and 212 for SPECint_rate95 on a dual-processor system running 180MHz PA-RISC 8000 CPUs, and 398 and 418 for floating-point and integer tests, respectively, on a quad-processor configuration. The two-processor comparisons are shown in Figure 1, and the four-processor results in Figure 2.

In the area of performance as a Web server, SGI has posted SPECweb96 scores of 2,753 for a dual-CPU O200, and 4,665 for a quad-processor machine. Similarly, Sun has posted scores of 1,628 for a two-CPU Enterprise 450, and 2,905 for a four-processor configuration of that machine. HP has not posted scores for a two-processor configuration of the HP 9000 model K460, but the company's result for a four-CPU system was a score of 2,114. Thus, the O200 scores significantly higher than either of these two competitors on this benchmark. You should be aware that the SPECweb96 benchmark performs only HTTP GET operations across multiple directories in formulating the results (see the SPEC Web site at for a detailed discussion of the benchmark). The SPEC organization acknowledges that testing only GET operations gives an incomplete view of factors affecting Web-server performance.

How It Rates

The O200's design typifies SGI's attention to both style and engineering. The striking appearance of the system suggests placing the system in a public area, rather than hiding it in the machine room. At the functional level, we also liked the remote management capabilities provided by the MSC. The electro-mechanical design of the O200, however, constrains the expandability of the system's CPUs. Thus, we rate the O200's design as four, rather than five, Performance Computing flags.

Installation of the O200 could hardly be easier. Factory preinstallation of the operating system and any bundled software essentially reduces the setup to cable connections and assignment of IP address and hostname. We also liked the simplicity of installing a second tower. Flip a DIP switch, plug in the CrayLink cable, and off you go. The O200 earns a full five-flag rating for ease of installation.

Documentation for the O200 is consistent in volume, but distinctive in content, compared to industry norms. The two printed manuals are limited to hardware-related issues, but are easy to understand, unusually thorough in their presentation, and well-illustrated. SGI's online documentation continues to set the standard for ease of use and completeness. We also applaud SGI's decision to make most hardware and OS documentation freely available on the Web. The O200's documentation deserves its five-flag rating.

Expansion of storage capacity inside the O200 cabinet is outstanding for a system of this size. And, while the lack of an external SCSI connector may seem puzzling at first, we think it is a sensible approach. Considering that How It Rates external storage is more likely to be Fibre Channel, and the specific devices may require different adapter cards, eliminating the external SCSI bus seems appropriate. The architecture of the motherboard, similar to that of the Origin 2000, limits the CPU expansion to a dual-processor configuration, however. That forces you to use a second cabinet if you want a four-processor configuration, and adds to the cost of such expansion. Most designs can expand to four CPUs per motherboard. Thus, we are compelled to rate the O200's expandability at three Performance Computing flags.

In operation, the O200 performed flawlessly, which speaks well of both the system hardware and the Irix 6.5 operating system. This latest release of Irix runs on all current SGI systems, as well as most older models, simplifying the administration of a mixed SGI environment. Irix 6.5, certified UNIX 95-compliant by The Open Group, also offers outstanding systems management and interoperability features. The fully 64-bit OS supports up to 256GB of physical memory, and has a theoretical limit of nine million terabytes of storage--enough for any UNIX system administrator. (SGI information indicates that the largest current Irix installation has mere hundreds of terabytes of actual storage.) While the Irix 6.5 OS's capacity far exceeds the requirements of the O200, a rating of five flags is warranted for the O200's operation.

Performance of the O200 was impressive at both two-CPU and four-processor configuration levels. Our SPECrate95 runs for the system were consistent with, or ahead of, other outstanding performers in this market segment, such as Sun's Enterprise 450. Due to the additional cost of power supplies and other supporting hardware in a two-chassis, four-CPU configuration, the O200's price/performance obviously shines brighter at the dual-processor level. The O200's impressive SPECweb96 scores place it head and shoulders above similarly configured competitors for that application. Although the motherboard does not support the fastest Mips processors currently available, the O200 nonetheless earns a full five-flag rating for performance.

Overall, we think the Origin 200 is a superb candidate for dual-processor installations, particularly for Web-related applications. The O200's design is certainly front-office in appearance, and suitable for a wide range of applications behind the scenes as well. Irix 6.5 is a rock-solid 64-bit SVR4-based OS that is UNIX 95-certified, and includes outstanding cross-platform interoperability features. SGI's continuing interoperability support for Novell NetWare and Apple Macintosh environments is also laudable. The O200 suffers a slight price/performance penalty when going to a quad-processor configuration, but this speedy blue-footed data ferret easily earns four Performance Computing flags overall.

Ralph Barker is senior technical editor for Performance Computing.

SGI's Origin 200

Silicon Graphics Inc.
2011 N. Shoreline Blvd.
Mountain View, CA 94043
415-961-0595 fax

TESTED CONFIGURATION: Four 225MHz Mips R10000 CPUs, each with 32KBi/32KBd primary cache, 2MB unified secondary instruction/data cache; 1GB RAM, expandable to 2GB/tower; two 9.1GB system disks, three 9.1GB disks for Origin Vault array; one 12x CD-ROM drive; four serial ports, two parallel ports, two 10/100Base-TX Ethernet ports; Irix 6.5, WebForce bundle.

OPTIONS: Wide variety of configuration options, networking, and I/O cards, along with external storage, and software options. Two-CPU single-tower configuration with 512MB RAM, 9.1GB system disk with WebForce and Irix 6.5, $28,903
EVALUATION: The physically attractive Origin 200 is a solid performer, and worthy of a bit of sibling pride from its big brother, the Origin 2000 (winner of the server category in the 1998 Performance Computing Outstanding Product Awards). While the system's price/performance is best at the dual-CPU level, this speedy little blue-footed data ferret earns four Performance Computing flags overall-excellent.
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