Back in the late 80s, there weren't that many bigger names in the IT industry than Silicon Graphics.
Which makes its demise, triggered by its second bankruptcy this decade and its offloading at a firesale price of $25m to be doubly poignant. Its purchaser, Rackable, is as far away from the SGI as it could be. Whereas SGI was about heavy-duty, intensive processing, -at least it was until it made the move to Intel Itanium chips - Rackable is about efficient, low-power-consuming servers.In retailing terms, it's almost as if Harrods was snatched up by Poundstretcher.
But both companies do have one thing in common; they both tapped into the zeitgeist of their own particular times. Silicon Graphics in its heyday was as near to be sexy as you could be in the IT world; its machines were used in Hollywood in the burgeoning special effects-driven films - hell, a Silicon Graphics machine even made a token appearance in Jurassic Park (bravely resists attempt to make dinosaur joke).
So, SGI joins a long list of workstation and minicomputer companies, once trailblazers who have shuffled off this mortal coil. Digital Equipment, Data General and (shortly, it seems) Sun are just the main names but there have been many more. All of them dead after failing to change in time. SGI was undercut because eventually there were many, cheaper computers that could do what it had specialised in and the company was reluctant to kill its own products to adapt. All of thse companies made mistakes - as Tolstoy might have said, all unsuccessful companies are unsuccesful in their own way - but SGI made a succession of them: sticking too long to its proprietary roots, waiting for the long-delayed Itanium (and delaying its own products), buying Cray for far too much money and having to offload later, the purchase of the z10 range from Intergraph and the subsequent discontinuation of the products - far too many and each landing the company deeper in the financial mire.
It's not quite clear what Rackable sees in SGI; are the products or the customer base of greater interest? But at that sort of price, at least it's not paying over the odds.
But it's a sobering assessment of what some of today's high-flyers are worth. There are plenty of companies that seem to be unasailable but 15 years ago, SGI and Sun would have been riding high too and it would have been a foolish industry prophet who'd have bet on them crumbling away in such a relatively short period of time. Adapt or die: it should be written above the door of every Silicon Valley company. But, although it seems obvious, I just know that companies will carry on ignoring it and some time in the next five, ten years we'll be writing the obituary of another major player who couldn't keep up.