My Workstation OS: Irix


Author: Robert Mertling-Blake

Can a proprietary Unix be a desktop OS that competes with Windows, Mac OS
X, and Linux desktops? Although it may lack the visual
effects of OS X, and installation is tricky in parts, Irix is a
stable desktop OS — possibly because it runs only on SGI’s own

For the uninitiated, Irix is the operating system developed by SGI (formerly known as Silicon Graphics) for its RISC-based Unix workstations, which are used for high-end graphics tasks by governmental organisations, film studios, and engineering firms. For the last eight months I’ve been using Irix on an SGI Octane.

In 2002, when I bought my first SGI machine, an Indy R4600 with 24-bit graphics, a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and webcam (but no hard drive), all I knew was that SGI was responsible for some impressive visual effects in recent films. I wanted to try a proper Unix box after having used Linux on my PC for a couple of years. I managed to track down a SCSI II drive from a local computer breaker, plugged it in, and, hey presto, I had a working but blank disk drive in my machine. Now I needed to install Irix.

Ian Mapleson’s SGI advice site provides installation instructions for Irix for the beginner — everything from partitioning the root drive to knowing which order the CDs needed to be put in. His site also provides the average time it takes to do the install on whatever system you may have — useful if you want to know how many cups of coffee you’re going to need! I’ve used two versions of Irix, 6.2 and 6.5, and their installation processes are practically the same. What is surprising is the obscurity of the SGI
partitioning tool, fx, on the installation media. It needs to be manually run through the PROM monitor, whereas the main installation tools can be automatically loaded off the CD/network through the boot options screen.

Once installed, system management is rather nice — the System Manager
utility in the system menu of the toolchest contains most of the
important administration options, and the Software Manager is well done
in terms of dependency handling — although it does help to have a little
knowledge about what each package does. The.tardist format allows for
single-file packages to be downloaded off the Internet and installed

The desktop

When you first log in to an SGI workstation, you’re presented with the
Indigo Magic Desktop, which uses the Motif libraries (which makes it feel
a little old fashioned). When it was first released with Irix 5.3 and
the Silicon Graphics Indy in 1993, however, it brought new features to the desktop, some of which are only now being copied by user interface

Today, the desktop has been surpassed in features and usability by
most other user interfaces. With user interface development on the
Indigo Magic Desktop pretty much at a standstill since the release of
Irix 6.5, it’s up to the user community to make improvements. One such improvement is Iconbar, an OS X-style
taskbar for running applications. Although only officially at version
0.2, I find it very stable, and a superior replacement for SGI’s own
icon manager.

For those who remember the movie “Jurassic Park,” there is actually a 3D file system browser for Irix similar to the one used in the “This is a Unix system — I know this!” scene: fsn, the file system navigator does actually exist for Irix, although it remains a graphics demo and was never developed a fully functional file manager.


SGI runs its own Irix freeware site. It hasn’t updated the packages since May 2004, but it releases the latest Mozilla/Firefox versions on the application CD bundled with its
latest quarterly release of Irix. In response to the lack of freeware
updates, the community at Nekochan set up Nekoware — the latest free software compiled for Irix. You can find recent versions of popular software, from MPlayer to GAIM, under “Software Downloads,” and discussion about Nekoware can be found in the “Irix: Development” forum on the Nekochan site. Nekoware was what tipped the scales for me in terms of moving to Irix as a desktop. As an example of the applications I use, I wrote this article on the Nekoware build of Abiword. The Web browser I use is a special GTK1 build of Firefox, with a matching GTK1 build of Thunderbird to read my email. I keep in contact with all my friends who use MSN Messenger with GAIM. With the recently released port of ScummVM, I plan to play some of my favourite old games again. The only problem lies in video playback — the graphics card in my Octane lacks texture memory, so video playback with the MPlayer port is not very good, and MPlayer lacks many modern codecs compatible with Irix and SGI machines.

The SGI user community hangs out in two main places: Nekochan, and the
comp.sys.sgi.* newsgroups. These communities are very newbie-friendly and are brilliant ports of call for help and advice relating to
SGI systems and software. They are also excellent places to catch up on
the gossip regarding new systems and developments from SGI.

Sadly, SGI is losing its edge in the 3D graphics market to Linux and Mac, and Irix is dying. SGI seem to have cut back releases from once a
quarter to every six months, and is now moving its product line to Linux
on Itanium. Irix won’t appeal to those who like desktops with funky visual effects. However, if care to learn 3D graphics, or want a lightweight desktop that’s different and have the time and money to invest in a SGI machine, Irix is certainly worth a try.

What’s your desktop OS of choice? So far, we’ve heard from fans of FreeBSD,
, Debian, Xandros, Slackware, Windows XP, Lycoris, SUSE Professional, NetBSD, Ubuntu, FreeDOS, Libranet, Mandrakelinux, Arch Linux, Mac OS X, Knoppix, Linspire, Gentoo, PCLinuxOS, Yoper, Fedora Core 3, Windows 2000 Professional, Damn Small Linux, VidaLinux, Kanotix, and VectorLinux.


  • Unix