Originally published in the February 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.

Mo' mobile computing

RDI's 812 pound PowerLite 85 is made to perform like Sun's SPARCstation 5. An outdoorsy model will ship later.

Edited by Shalini Chatterjee

Like the soft-drink companies who make two versions of the same product to satisfy different consumers, portable workstation vendor RDI (Carlsbad, CA) has manufactured two versions of its latest portable workstation model, the PowerLite 85.

The best way to describe the differences is to call one a civilian model and the other a military machine. Extra-hardy commercial customers, such as those in GIS for instance, are welcome to purchase the government-intended version, which is called the Rugged 85 for its weather-proof features and substantial hardware accessories. It will ship later than the regular PowerLite 85, the company said. With its extra features, it will probably weigh more, though specifics were not available.

PowerLite 85
The company's original PowerLite was introduced in September 1993. The new version of the included VWA (Virtual Workgroup Architecture) software is fine-tuned to include remote mail-retrieval tools and enhanced power management -- such as a feature that puts the chip into an idle, power-conserving state. Additionally, memory has been beefed up from 16 to 32 megabytes, the 85-MHz microSPARC replaced the previous 50-MHz chip, and higher performing TurboGX graphics replaced the previous CG3 offering.

"The customers we have been dealing with have said 16 [megabytes, PowerLite's previous allotment] is not a configuration we can deal with,'" said Bob Shields, director of marketing. As always, more memory means more money -- 32 megabytes costs $11,995; 64 megabytes costs $15,495; and 96 megabytes costs a bit more at $18,995.

So far, the portable workstation market has relied on business from software engineering, MCAD (drafting and design), and electronic design automation (see Industry targets of RDI's PowerLite 85). But these lines of work require a certain amount of horsepower: a lot of processing muscle, hefty graphics acceleration, good displays, and lots of memory and disk capacity.

"Give 'em disk space, and they'll fill it up, especially in the database arena," said Shields. In its base configuration, it comes with either a 520-or 810-megabyte single-disk drive, but two additional hard disks may be added for a total of 2.4 gigabytes (the third drive will have to replace the floppy). Bundled with Solaris 1.1.2 (or Solaris 2.4 for another $200), it connects to external Sun monitors, PC monitors, or overhead projection panels.

With its hardware upgrading, RDI plans to send a red alert to its competition: Tadpole Technology in Austin, maker of the SPARCbook 3; and Sun in Mountain View, although its SPARCstation Voyager is marketed as a space saver rather than a portable notebook (see "Voyager: Sun's space saver stays put," April 1994). Additionally, IBM announced the N40 50-MHz PowerPC-based AIX notebook last year, which Shields did not mention, though IBM licenses Tadpole's NCE (see "IBM RS/ 6000 N40," May 1994).

Shields claims the PowerLite 85 does boast a few technical details that differentiate it from its competitors. SBus expansion, for one, is a feature Shields states Sun and Tadpole lack. Sun replies its Voyager has two PCMCIA slots, Ethernet, SCSI, parallel and serial interfaces, plus audio in/out jacks and a floppy.

Shields further claims the PowerLite's optional $6,000 1024-by-768 high-resolution display (made by Sharp) is better than Tadpole's and as good as the Voyager's. (Sun's color display is by Sharp, the mono version is by Hosiden; Tadpole's display is also made by Sharp.) But the 640-by-480 display that comes with the base price is fine, the company said, and provides 13 million pixels. The optional screen provides 34 million pixels. For further technical comparisons see "Taking it with you," Reviews, page 30. The PowerLite 85 is scheduled to ship February 1, 1995.

James Bond's workstation
Because Rugged 85 customers have a different agenda, there is additional hardware. "They are not as sensitive to size, and are more focused on cramming [in features]," Shields said. What this model has that the other lacks is a host of features for what sounds like disaster survival. It has a PCMCIA Removable Disk Drive, which is important for security; if there is secret info on the disk drive it can be removed and hidden. It features a CD-ROM, a floppy disk -- and more remarkably -- a company spokesperson added, it's "built to resist a high level of shock while in operation" and "it is waterproof and will float." Pricing and further information was not available at press time, nor was a shipping date, except Q2 '95. Each PowerLite 85 is backed by a one-year warranty, with service contracts available.

RDI Computer Corp., 2300 Faraday Ave., Carlsbad, CA 92008, 619-929-0992, e-mail sales@rdi.com.
-- Shalini Chatterjee

Silicon Graphics focus

Reality Station: caboose of Onyx line

To plug a hole in its product line, Silicon Graphics (Mountain View, CA) recently rolled out a single-processor member of its Onyx family. Called the Reality Station, the graphics workstation costs $94,000 and will ship in March. The art-meets-science company also recently announced an $11,000 business software package for the World Wide Web.

The name Reality Station comes from the company's flagship RealityEngine2 graphics subsystem that fuels the Onyx product line. Like its family members, the Reality Station runs on the 200-MHz MIPS R4400 chip. The base configuration includes a 2-gigabyte system disk and 64 megabytes of memory.

The single-processor machine indicates SGI's awareness of precarious budgets. "There is a slice of people who are torn between buying an Indigo2 that's really not enough or buying a two-processor Onyx, which is pricey," industry analyst Terry Bennett (Portland, OR) said. "This is a heck of a lot of graphics for one processor. They had a lot of engineering on their plate. This is a case where they [SGI] had to take a pretty orderly approach to filling out their product line," he said.

For instance, product manager Janet Reimer pointed out many people probably don't know that computational analysis -- gridding figures and analyzing the results -- is not just a number- crunching game, but "is very graphics intensive." Because some companies are unable to afford a two-processor Onyx ($168,000), the RealityEngine2 provides an alternative.

Analyst Bennett said, "The price is well related to the cost [to build the machine]. I don't see them [SGI] making a premium off Reality Station."

Reimer of SGI stated one example providing just enough power in the area of simulation and training: Sometimes, demonstrating a simpler portion of some flight-training feats is not a two-processor job. "[Some customers] don't need all the power it would take to show how to land [a plane]," she said.

Reimer expects current Onyx users will buy Reality Stations to reduce time to market. For instance, Alias Research (Toronto) bought heavily configured Onyx systems to design cars. Previously, models were built out of clay, but SGI said computer-built automotive designs are more flexible since feedback of variations are provided immediately. Alias is planning to purchase Reality Stations next as a platform that can be shifted out to smaller departments with lower budgets, Reimer said.

Similarly, General Dynamics (Groton, CT) builds digital submarine mock-ups on their six Onyxes, replacing the expensive procedure of building costly wood models. This company will most likely use Reality Stations as a deployment platform, according to Reimer.

Last fall, Silicon Graphics spiced up their Onyx and Challenge L and XL servers by enhancing the chip speed from 150 to 200 MHz. This chip upgrade came at the same time the company announced a new midrange machine, the POWER Indigo2. According to Bennett, SGI is coping well with its rapid growth and snowballing sales, which he says even SGI didn't expect.

"Who would have thought the film and video industry would have been a big market? They [SGI] didn't. It has been a gangbuster market, and one they created with their technology." Close on SGI's heels, Bennett said, is HP with its 700 series workstations and CRX graphics, with Sun in second place (see "HP's graphics onslaught" June 1994).

This year
In the same January 16th announcement, SGI offered another option that will mostly benefit visual-simulation application developers and film and video editors. The Audio/Serial option allows users to record, edit, and play four channels of 16-bit audio signals. The Serial part of the package entails six high-speed asynchronous serial ports for interactive devices, like virtual-reality equipment and motion-tracking hardware. This option will not be available until April of this year, and will run on all Onyx and Challenge server families. Pricing was not available at press time.

"Customers requested the same audio capability that is available on our desktop machines. This is particularly important for post-production houses," Reimer said.

Later in January, a new WWW (World Wide Web) software product line was announced. Called WebForce at press time, it runs on Indy computers and Challenge S servers. Its Web-focused components include an editor that builds home pages and a video encoder for MPEG. The complete bundle will sell for around $11,000.

"It's a way to get your business on the Web for less than the cost of your next color brochure," said product manager John McCrea. The customers SGI hopes to attract reside in the "three main lobes of the Web market," according to McCrea: commerce, government and education, and internal publishing.

In other SGI news, last December the company announced it will cooperate with Sybase to deliver Sybase's upcoming database products on Challenge SMP servers. Target market sectors include those in data mining, data warehousing, and multimedia.

Silicon Graphics, 2011 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View, CA 94043, 415-960-1980. -- Shalini Chatterjee

Distributed business computing

Avalon automates corporate chores

Attempting to move beyond its manufacturing software niche and into direct competition with companies like Oracle Corp. (Rexdwood Shores, CA), Avalon Software Inc. (Tucson, AZ) has released Avalon applications 9.0.

As a first step toward repositioning, the product's name is new, changed from Avalon CIIM for corporate integrated, interactive manufacturing software. Automotive, computer hardware, and other manufacturing-intensive companies have gotten their use out of traditional integrated manufacturing packages, Mr. Rangaswami, vice president of marketing said, but now find them too limited because they are departmentally based and tied to proprietary operating systems and databases.

Instead, distributed business systems that run on enterprisewide networks are the order of the day. Avalon applications continue to support basic automated manufacturing and distribution operations like shop-floor control, inventory balances, and order-entry procedures. It moves beyond that, however, toward automation of every corporate activity. In consequence, the company has beefed up Avalon's accounting module to provide corporate leaders with a critical tool and as a way of offering a stand-alone financials package competitive with comparable offerings from Oracle. All of Avalon 9.0 is now modular, so companies can pick and choose sub-packages and gradually implement them in current operations.

Even as it challenges Oracle on the accounting front, in the new release Avalon increases its application's linkage with the Oracle7 relational database, as well as with Sybase's relational-database management system (RDBMS). Perhaps the most important change to Avalon, Rangaswami said, is that about 80 percent of its application logic has been shifted from clients to the database server software. The server thus becomes the business brains of an operation and -- with 3,000 business rules residing on it -- acts as a virtual corporate controller, an invisible hand pulling the enterprise toward more timely and cost-effective operations.

The new server focus means less administration work and cost, because upgrading database memory is less expensive than upgrading hundreds of clients. It also cuts down on network traffic, the company said.

Further improvements include enhancement of Motif interface support and the addition of Microsoft Windows clients, while support continues for character-based terminals. The various interfaces are designed to meet the needs of different corporate users. For example, executives and managers can access the Motif and Windows GUIs for supervising accounts and performing sophisticated data analysis, while data-entry personnel is able to punch in orders on character terminals without graphical distractions.

Avalon Software's upgrade also includes a new capability for separate plants to share information and for company executives and managers to either centralize or decentralize operations. Rangaswami said the changes certify Avalon 9.0's emergence as a more broadly based product, one that can compete with Oracle in the high-stakes client/server arena of enterprise resource planning (ERP). How high the stakes is indicated by Avalon's client list, which includes such corporate blue-chips as Matsushita, Motorola, AT&T, Hyundai Electronics, Volkswagen de Mexico, Saab, Cummins Engines, and Reader's Digest. Pricing is another indicator, ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.

The price, though, hasn't deterred companies at more than 200 sites from buying Avalon's products, including Hyundai's Axil Computers subsidiary (Santa Clara, CA). Business analyst John Caulfield, hired two years ago by Axil specifically to implement Avalon software there, says four divisions -- semiconductor, assembly, raw materials, and workstations -- are using the product so far and all has gone well.

The Avalon applications help the company track everything simultaneously: vendors, purchase orders, ordering of manufacturing supplies, and time for production startup.

Avalon Software Inc., 3716 E. Columbia, Tucson, AZ 85714, 602-790-4214. -- Barry Green

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Last updated: 1 February 1995.