back to article Silicon Graphics' IRIX and Magic Desktop return as Linux desktop

Those of you yearning for the experience of running a 1990s-vintage graphics workstation are about to have a good day: a developer named Eric Masson has resurrected the IRIX Interactive Desktop that shipped on Silicon Graphics Workstations and now offers it as a Linux desktop alternative. Silicon Graphics (SGI) had a crack at …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    proprietary workstations became an oddity.

    And yet, pretty much all my graphical and computational routines written for Irix of that vintage will compile with minimal effort on a modern Linux system, and run fine. Proproetary indeed.

  2. TRT Silver badge


    was expensive, but beautiful kit all the same.

    1. Chemist

      Re: SGI

      "was expensive, but beautiful kit all the same."

      It was. We moved a large number of workstations over to Dell/Linux/dual Xeons from SGI in ~~2003 and saved a small fortune. As mentioned above little needed to be done in software terms.

    2. Inspector71

      Re: SGI

      Agree, superb hardware. As soon as I saw a Tezro demoed in an engineering design house I visited I was smitten. Then they told me the price. Made my Powermac seem like bargain bin.

    3. Allonymous Coward

      Re: SGI

      We had an SGI Origin 2000 in our server room back in the early 2000s.

      One of the systems guys claimed he used to go in there just to look at it, it was so pretty.

      1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

        Re: SGI

        University of Leics recieved one of the first three Origin 2000s to get shipped to the UK. The Met Office got another, and SGI were tight lipped about who bought the 3rd,......

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: SGI

          We had an Indigo and an O2 for 3D reconstruction work. Lovely kit. We also had a Space Ball 4D joystick control. $*cough*,000s The PSU alone (a 9V wall-wart from Tandy) was listed as £400.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          I remember being present at a Sales meeting when the Sales Manager asked who the customer was - Salesman replies "Sorry can't tell you, you don't have clearance"

          - signed, an ex SGI pre-sales techie

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: SGI

      as was Sun.

      Ah the lovely SCSI external drive with neat removable psu, wires clipped neatly into place and a polished chrome looking finish....and that was just the insides.

      Even Compaq made some nice kit...(if you exclude the razor sharp edges that would slice you open)

      Then they all made over priced generic tat.

  3. 45RPM Silver badge

    Perhaps I'm a dinosaur - but I prefer these old GUIs to the overly flashy GUIs of today. I like OpenStep, TWM and the IRIX GUI. they're simple, uncluttered, and functional. I'm delighted by this development - and I'll certainly give it a bash on my Linux box (GNUStep, despite interesting but abandoned (and, in any case, too flashy) developments like Etoile, doesn't work brilliantly well).

    Fingers crossed that this one is Ronseal (does what it says on the tin)

    1. Nick Kew

      When I first used Linux, I set it up with olvwm, and just used the commandline in the little console window to launch GUI applications. Mostly plain ol' xterms (and variants on that theme) for working in, but also a web browser and other such modern gizmos.

      I'd still work like that if I hadn't got fed up with the number of hoops they make us jump through today.

      1. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

        "When I first used Linux, I set it up with olvwm, and just used the commandline in the little console window to launch GUI applications. "

        Yeah. I played around with fvwm a lot.

        MS has brought back the need to type things to launch them though, with a start "menu" that is anything but.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      XFCE on Mint

      The reason I stick with XFCE on Mint, maybe not as simple a desktop as something like CDE but XFCE is simple, stays out of the way as it should, stuff can be found in a split second and it just runs stuff without any silly graphics frills. In a busy IT environment where Windows is king I want to run a Linux desktop, I need something fast and so simple my granny could use it. Topped with Firefox, Evolution, SQLDeveloper, Terminator ( superb fast, multi-split terminal windows ) for getting to the *nix servers and a copy of rDesktop for Windows access when necessary, all sorted.

      1. fidodogbreath

        Re: XFCE on Mint

        +1 for Mint XFCE. Fast, unobtrusive, low RAM overhead for a GUI, and it runs great on anything from a Core 2 Duo on up. There are lighter distros, of course, but IMHO Mint XFCE hits the sweet spot for footprint, performance, and functionality.

    3. patrickstar

      I actually still use CDE quite a lot, on a SUN workstation, even.

      Though admittedly that's mostly for nostalgia. It's too mouse-intensive for my taste - for *ix systems I usually run ion/notion.

      Still looks better than Windows 8/8.1/10 though!

      1. Dr_N

        +1 for CDE but I still preferred OpenWindows with the multi-paned olvwm.

        1. patrickstar

          Unfortunately olwm isn't included with newer Solaris. I suppose I could install the free version, but it just wouldn't be the same, you know?

          Also, while it does include xlock, it no longer shows the SUN logo in the game-of-life screensaver :-(

          (though I suppose the ancient xlock has about a million trivial bypasses so I'm better off with xscreensaver regardless)

      2. Zippy's Sausage Factory

        I actually still use CDE quite a lot, on a SUN workstation, even.

        I'm sure they open sourced CDE a while ago. If I ever win EuroMillions I intend to quite and start rolling my own Linux distribution to answer silly questions like

        - what does Linux using real CDE feel like?

        - can a Linux distribution function without using any GNU software? (not because I have anything against gnu, just that I want to see if it can be done)

        and finally, and most important

        - do I actually have the patience to bother tinkering with all that stuff anyway?

        1. patrickstar

          To answer one of your questions, there are already dists based on busybox and uclibc or musl.

    4. HmmmYes

      XFCE then.

      I wish they could prt it to QT and be shot of GDK.

      1. John Sanders

        XFCE Yes!

        You'd be surprised, the latest incarnation (stil in dev) uses GTK3 and surprisingly uses much less memory and it is noticeably faster than the GTK2 counterpart.

        Also it has an enhanced compositor and proper vsync support.

        As much as I despise Gnome and their API breakage policies GTK3 once it has reached maturity its proving to be decent.

    5. GreenBit

      Yes!Since about 2005 there has been a continual erosion in the end-user configurability of desktops, and a mad proliferation of "look at me interfaces. Of course, they have to rip off the knobs, to force everyone to look at their so called "pretty" and "modern cruft. I maintain there's nothing wrong with a system that just does its job and otherwise stays out of the way

    6. DuncanLarge Silver badge

      I don't see how GNUStep has been abandoned, even when considering it is seen as Mature, the latest release was published 53 days ago.

  4. Gene Cash Silver badge

    The wikipedia page on SGI is interesting. They were delisted in 2005.

    Dang, I'm old, because I remember intensely lusting after SGI (and NeXT) hardware. And now that was 12 years ago...

    It also mentions SGI sold Linux servers pre-1999. I wonder if that means they already ported the desktop?

    The original IRIS motherboards were descended from SUN workstations? I didn't know that!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Dang, I'm old .... And now that was 12 years ago...

      in 05? where were you in 97?

      I;m not following . you lusted after them once they were obsolete?

    2. jbiff

      SGI's early Linux servers were shipped with the option of either Redhat Enterprise Server or SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, running either the standard KDE or Gnome GUIs according to user preference. SGI never ported the IRIX GUI to Linux, though it did port the XFS file system and a number of other tools to Linux. The effort described in this article began as a third party project to port the look and feel of the IRIX desktop to Linux, under a limited license from SGI.

  5. Nick Kew

    Hardware nostalgia

    I remember my second '90s SGI workstation[1] particularly fondly. But that was down to the superb quality of the hardware: a monitor that was a pleasure to use (now long-surpassed by others, particularly Mac), and a fantastic keyboard that still stands out as the best I've encountered in my life.

    There was no pleasure to the software. Well, it was a functioning UNIX system on which one could build all the usual apps, but no more than that, and it was certainly buggier than Sun kit of the same era. I don't even recollect the desktop environment, except in that it was the first to be configured with a GUI login screen rather than a CLI login followed by some invocation like "xinit" or "startx".

    [1] @work, of course. Way beyond my personal budget.

    1. harmjschoonhoven

      Re: Hardware nostalgia

      It is now 2017 and I am typing this on an Silicon Graphics keyboard! Well, yes, running Slackware, not Irix.

      I have once and only once seen a Silicon Graphics hardware failure. One day I returned to my office after lunch and noticed a strange smell. One of the two board of the IRIS workstation that I used at the time had to be replaced because of an electrical shortcut.

      Another incident was when a SGI server that was used for MPEG encoding regularly failed because a RAM-module was ripped out of the machine while it was running, apparently without further damage. We got the cleaners who did this on camera.

    2. SteveK

      Re: Hardware nostalgia

      I do still have a bunch of SGI kit that I acquired when it was being thrown out. Kept meaning to do something with them and never quite found the time.

      As a result, hidden at the back of our server room is a Challenge L (4xR8000) (it is actually exceedingly difficult to 'hide' a Challenge server the size of a small fridge), 2-3 Indigo2s in various states of disrepair (including 1 Indigo2 Impact), a couple of Indys and an O2. The Challenge needed some hard disks, I think the Indigo2s were fine but had stripped them down in order to max the RAM in one.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    XFS - Ta SGI

    SGI did have the decency to liberate the XFS file system for Linux, still a good option, so thanks for that.

  7. David Robinson 1

    I was just sitting here thinking, "Y'know what? There just isn't enough desktop choices for Linux."

    1. Trilkhai

      When it comes to "desktops" that don't either require the user to do really extensive config or make it difficult at best to customize simple things (like choosing the color and style for window elements, not a united preset theme**), there really isn't anymore.

      **I wouldn't mind the united preset approach if 99% of the options didn't boil down to "grayscale with a very minor accent color." (If I want my windows to be a shade of blue, dammit, I don't want to have my options boil down to "gray with slight hint of teal", "black with a hint of cerulean", and "white with faint blush of something that might qualify as blue in the right light.")

  8. Kevin Johnston

    SGI - Playing at work

    I was at a Flight Sim company that used SGI for modelling the scenarios and it had the software to fly around the model to check for artifacts, break-up etc and many a quiet hour was spent practising landing the curved approach at the old Hong Kong airport.

    There was even a company using SGI systems slapped on a basic cockpit as an starter pack for trainee pilots, the graphics really were that good.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The IRIX desktop is basically a port of CDE with a few extra apps thrown in. The source of CDE was open sourced a few years ago and there is an active project cleaning up and porting the code to modern Unix like operating systems.

    1. jbiff

      While both CDE and the IRIX desktop were built using the Motif toolkit, they are two very different beasts with very different desktop metaphors, configurations, code, and essentially no overlap at the desktop application level. Both were first released within a few months of each other in 1993. (Note: it was possible to install CDE instead of the IRIX desktop on SGI machines, but that was a relatively rare scenario. Perhaps that is what you are remembering?)

  10. Rob Crawford

    I was on board with the whole thing then I saw Eclipse

    Oh well that's something else that isn't going to work

  11. Dave 126

    Tangential note re GUIs of yesteryear

    You can a quad core 64bit machine running AmigaOS!

    No relation to SGI, I know, other than both systems were used for CGI back in the day.

  12. hmv

    1980s not 1990s.

    Of the triumvirate who escaped Stanford (Cisco, Sun, and SGI), SGI initially concentrated on building graphics terminals to connect to big machines but soon started running IRIX locally to appeal to the graphics intensive workstation market (including pharmaceutical drug design). These were initially 68000 machines but soon adopted the MIPS processor.

    The introduction of "low end" (< £10,000) workstations for multimedia in the 1990s was an attempt to attack the Mac domination of the content creation market. Not entirely successfully, although I did run Photoshop 3 on an SGI for a while.

    1. Tridac

      I still have an Indy Webforce in store, but not sure if it would still boot, nor if the psu caps are still ok. The monitor was given away years ago, but a TFT would work fine. Had Photoshop, Illustrator, a good flight sim, web and video apps etc, out of the box + of course, the Indy Webcam. Years ahead of it's time and beautiful artsy desktop, but too expensive for most. They really were the king of colour graphics at the time...

    2. Korev Silver badge

      but soon started running IRIX locally to appeal to the graphics intensive workstation market (including pharmaceutical drug design).

      I get the impression that the Computational Chemists have never quite forgiven us for getting rid of the SGI boxes in favour of HP workstations running Linux. We do still have a couple of productiveish SGI workstations running some software that "was ruined" when it was ported to Linux!

      1. gsastre

        Computational Chemist using Cerius2

        Hi Korev,

        I'm in fact a computational chemist using an old SGI O2 workstation running Cerius2 software...

        ... until yesterday when the workstation said goodbye.

        I only switched it on from time to time when I was in need of using a specific command of Cerius2 which has never been ported to Materials Studio, the sequel of Cerius2.

        Now, my only option would be to try run IRIX on my PC-ubuntu and reinstall Cerius2 from an old CD containing the software. Do you think this is possible using this?:

        Any other suggestion?


        Best regards


        1. MSCUNINA

          Re: Computational Chemist using Cerius2


          I have the same problem and while I was looking for a possible solution on the web I found this forum and I read your question. How did you solve the problem? If you want, I can give you my e-mail address and we can discuss about it out of the forum.

  13. Matthew Taylor


    Ah, the 90's. In the post production place I worked, we had several Onyx machines, which were something to behold. They were 5.5 feet tall, and you could fly a kite above their fan output vents. Awesome kit.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If the effort spent in writing the n-th ddesktop manager for Linux...

    ... was spent in making one truly usable with a decent design, decent icons and decent fonts... there would also a lot of spare time to write decent, usable desktop applications. And maybe we would see more commercial and useful software ported on Linux as well, with less variables to cope with (of course, for those who are not so miserly and greed they can't pay for software).

    A good example when more choices actually just means fewer, real, usable ones. But this will be the year of Linux on the desktop... just it's the same desktop, just changing manager <G>.

    1. jbiff

      Re: If the effort spent in writing the n-th ddesktop manager for Linux...

      That's kind of the point of this project, though. The old IRIX Interactive Desktop *was* "truly usable with a decent design, decent icons and decent fonts." While it might not have all of the fancy animations, transparencies, and so on that people expect today, it was a mature, snappy, well-designed GUI that nicely balanced essential functionality with unobtrusiveness. I kept using it long after SGI systems were surpassed in raw performance because no other Unix/Linux X11 GUI matched that balance. I look forward to trying this on modern hardware.

  15. Buzzword

    "and maybe do serious work"

    You mean maybe spend the best part of two weekends fiddling about, getting everything to compile, getting your existing apps to work with it, hours spent searching obscure foreign-language forums (mangled through Google Translate) for an answer to why X won't work with Y, all for a 2% subjective improvement in the GUI? No thanks.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is the year of Linux on the desktop!

    ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this! ^this!

  17. Tom 7

    Too long ago to remeber exactly what it was

    but I used to use an SGI workstation and Cadence software to do chip design. I do remember it would process at 1Mips which seemed incredible considering it was 100th the volume of the similar performance VAX box in the server room.

    I remember it being a really nice machine to work on - and the combination with the Cadence software let me do some amazing things. Got a bit scared after a long long session when a colleague down the corridor worked out how to fuck with my XWindows making it melt slowly after disabling the keyboard. If I'd lost that work I would have fried the bastard.

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch

      Re: Too long ago to remeber exactly what it was

      use of 'xhost +' or 'rsh' considered dangerous, perhaps?

  18. ecofeco Silver badge

    Interesting nostalgia project

    I too remember these. This is an interesting nostalgia project, but I'll stick to modern Linux, thanks.

    But if we could get those extremely cool and sexy chassis back? Yeah, that would be nice...

  19. W.O.Frobozz


    SGI died when Rick Beluzzo, long time Microsoft munchkin, took over the company.

    1. Dazed and Confused

      Re: Correction...

      > SGI died when Rick Beluzzo...

      I imagine that in effect that SGI died the same day that HP's workstation business died. The day that AMD launched the 64bit X86 chip. Before then HP & SGI owned the performance graphics marketplace because x86 boxes couldn't handle the large flat memory spaces needed by the applications. Once that limitation was done away with the writing was on the wall. PC hardware was going to nuke the specialist boxes because they'd never be able to compete on price and due to the volumes involved would be out spent 1000:1 in development.

  20. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

    For complete nostalgia it should include the 'feature' of the 'lp' account not requiring a password. Which release was that..... ?

    1. patrickstar

      And outofbox, guest, and more!

      Certainly up to IRIX 6.x atleast... 6.5 too IIRC?

      I think at one point it even shipped with + + in rhosts...

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Well that's my day shot...

    I was smitten by SGI back in 1995 when I started at my new job and they said, "here's your computer" and pointed to an Indy. And then they took me to the server room where there was a Challenge 10000 XL the size of a chest freezer. We beat the crap out of that thing doing genetics research. Happy days.

    Interesting historical note: SGI recognized by 1997 that the future was collective farms of thousands of CPUs acting as a single large compute resource and had started to build an operating system, Cellular IRIX, to handle it. The idea was you could grab whatever compute resource you needed and run your jobs on one or more cells, collections of CPU. A certain Amazonian company had the same idea, but implemented differently, and somewhat more successfully.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Is it Linuxes or Linii?

    Id prefer to be a Harbinger of Linii than an admin of linuxes.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wait....

      Linices, obviously

  23. mrmond

    Fluxbox with Rox filer

    oh yeah..and fbpanel.

  24. Mike 16


    My first website (in-company only, for specs and discussion of future architecture) was served by Xitami, ported to IRIX and running on my Indy ("It's an Indigo, without the GO"). Quite nice in retrospect, although SGI (for obvious reasons) tried very hard to be Sun-compatible, yet still mostly POSIX. When a bunch of us took a long lunch to see Jurassic Park, the line that got the second biggest laugh was "This is Unix, I know this", as if "knowing" a vanilla Unix was much help. (The biggest laugh was for the lawyer in the john, of course, with a bronze for "objects in the mirror"...)

    I sometimes regret not taking advantage of the opportunity to buy that Indy, being retired, for something like $200. And many years later, I found out that my boss's boss (3 or 4 companies on) was one of the designers of that GUI. Nice person, too.

  25. smartypants

    It's a shame there isn't an SGI emulator out there...

    Not last time I looked. Does anyone know of one? I have some old SGI software I'd like to get going again.

    1. Down not across

      Re: It's a shame there isn't an SGI emulator out there...

      I'm a little bit surprised nobody has mentioned video processing (excluding the fleeting reference in a post about Amiga) which is something where SGI was also ahead and had no real competition. They did practically invent webacm.

      I remeber playing with the built-in composite and s-video input in my Indy. I'd have to dig it out, but IIRC mine has 4400SC (may have been 4600) and I never did find a cheap enough CosmoCompress so it wasn't quite good enough to convert old VHS stuff. Nor did I ever get hold of Indigo2 Impact with R10000 for reasonable price. I haven't, of course, looked for years.

  26. ShortLegs

    Fantastic... except it is impossible to obtain.

    The website is down. Sourceforge has a project page but no files.... and I want!

  27. ShortLegs


    The site *IS* up - the links in both the story and the fansite are incorrect; they are missing the /?page_id=

    Download from here

  28. Spod

    Why is HPC more difficult now?

    Why is it that 20 years ago SGI could easily connect together 64 or more Origin 2000 HPC nodes with damn big fast switches and use them as one huge parallel shared-memory NUMA machine under a single, coherent copy of Irix - but today you need Linux running on every node and then a combination of MPI and SSH just to get the blasted nodes to talk to each other?

    1. Korev Silver badge

      Re: Why is HPC more difficult now?

      SGI/HPE sell boxes just like that today. They're sold as boxes for SAP HANA rather than a monster server for things like metagenome assembly.

  29. Spod

    XFS still going, 20+ years on ...

    I just configured a Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.3 server and the installer selected XFS by default!

    It's great to see RHEL using XFS as its default file system more than 20 years after SGI made it stable and scalable!

  30. John Savard


    The screenshot looks like plain old fvwm.

    I wonder if it comes with a Fortran 90 compiler that's better in some way than the two open-source ones currently available.

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