Introduction: The Silicon Graphics Refrigerator Project

(or: How To Turn a $175.000 High-End SGI Challenge DM Server into a Fridge)

Too much free time will make people do the weirdest things. I've always had a soft spot for obsolete computers, especially when they had once cost a small fortune and were the absolute top-of-the-line in their hey-day but are now hopelessly out-dated. It seems unfair that after only a short time of hard work the reward for their loyalty is to bring them to the junkyard.

When we move away from the boring, low-cost world of ugly WinTel PC's and look at the high-end of the computer market we come across a little computer company called Silicon Graphics Inc. Best known for their powerful workstations like the ever-so-cool Indy, they're the kind of people who don't jerk around when it comes to building a good looking machine. If you look up "Server" in SGI's dictionary it probably says:

Server (n.),
1. Large, extremely expensive machine that goes "Ping!". Measuring at least 25 cubic feet, heavy, bulky and giving of more heat then a nuclear power plant. It's big, it's bad, it's beautiful and makes it pretty obvious what happened to this year's IT-budget.

Step 1: How to Get One

It is unlikely you'll find a high-end server at a garage sale. So your best bet is to start working for the IT department of a large internet company and wait until something breaks down... well, that's what I did.

When one of our three Challenge DM servers broke down it was decided to strip the now-deceased monster, Dua it was called, of its vital organs (i.e. memory, cpu's, power supply etc.) and throw it away. So it was carried out the door and put next to the garbage containers only to be hauled back in again just three minutes later by my colleague and me.

At that moment I had a vision. A vision of a world where server and refrigerator could co-exist. The clouds broke and a beam of sunlight hit me. The angels sang and...well, you know, sort of like that scene from The Blues Brothers. "This will be my new project!", I proclaimed and took it home. That evening, an interesting situation occurred when our CEO was standing in the parking lot with a business client. As they talked they saw two guys come out of the front entrance and throw a rather expensive-looking server rather ungently in the back of a Volkswagen and drive off.

Step 2: Remove the Nasty Bits

What you need is a screwdriver and an electric drill to drill out all the rivets. And this thing has a lot of rivets! Every part is made of thick platted steel and securely bolted together. The engineers probably thought it would be a nice feature to use it as a safe if it ever broke down. It was great fun to take out the guts of this machine. Of course it's always fun to take something apart but it also shows you how well this thing is put together and how every piece is part of a complex ventilation system. To avoid disrupting the airflow you have to place plastic dummy boards when system boards are removed. The main ventilator (the power supply has two ventilators of its own) is so big it takes up most of the lower part of the cabinet.

Step 3: Throw the Nasty Bits Out With the Trash

It seems incredible that I could fill over three garbage bags with the stuff that came out of this server, even with the system boards already removed. And it wasn't easy either because I cut myself several times on some razor sharp metal parts. No child safety certificate for the Challenge I'm afraid. The point of this picture is to show you that you can't tell from the outside if somebody placed around $60.000,- worth of garbage in front of his house. (That's $20.000,- a bag)

Step 4: Find a Refrigerator That Fits

This part could be tricky. I was thinking of a camping style fridge or maybe a minibar like the ones you see in hotel rooms. But I was very lucky and a good friend of mine told me had just the sort of fridge I was looking for and he didn't use it anymore. I measured the width and height and it fitted perfectly! Almost as if they were made for each other.

It runs on normal 220 volts and it operates in complete silence. This is very nice if you're just interested in the fridge but I didn't want my server to come over all shy and polite. So this "problem" was later fixed by mounting one of the server's rather large fans on the rear panel to get that essential "humming"-sound you would expect from a hard working computer.

Another nifty feature is the ability to make ice cubes by placing two little ice cube trays on top of the cooling element.

Step 5: Make Some Modifications

The fridge was the same width as the server cabinet but the front wheels were in the way. So with a little help of the electric drill they had to go. To keep it mobile (and to prevent it from severely scratching my hardwood floor) I placed two smaller wheels underneath the cabinet. After that I placed two aluminium rails on the bottom to provide an even base for the fridge to stand on. These rails also made it a lot easier to put the fridge in and take it out again. This happened about 800 times.

Step 6: Connect All the Electronic Bits

I thought it would be fun to use as much of the original parts as possible. Because of the high quality of these parts I hope they will provide at least a 99,9 % uptime and make sure my beer-server will be online 24/7.

The AC connector did not fit the standard Euro-style power cord so it had to be replaced. I kept the other interesting looking stuff and you'll be happy to know that this baby is electronically secured by a 13 ampere fuse switch. For those of you who don't have a clue what that means: It means this fridge will probably sooner blow up before its fuse is tripped, but it's the thought that counts.

After the fuse switch comes a normal extension cord for the refrigerator and a 12-volt AC/DC adapter. This drives the fan on the back panel and the two extremely useless LED's on the front panel. (See next picture) The LED's should have been labelled GNDN* but instead I tell people the red LED starts flashing when the beer supply runs low.

(*Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing)

Step 7: The Finishing Touch

I spend a great deal of time just figuring out how I would mount the door of the fridge on to the front door of the cabinet and how to cover up the gaps at the top and the side. It worked out pretty well. After some modifications a grid that came out of the cabinet was replaced, now with two cool looking LED's on the front, which are completely pointless. After that the only thing left to be done was making sure the door closed nice and easy and drive some screws through the cabinet to secure it.

Step 8: And Finally...

The SGI fridge was moved to my previous employer, the Center for Mathematics and Computer Science (CWI) in Amsterdam. It sits in the coffee corner of the INS department, happily humming away the hours.

I could not think of a more suitable home for it as in 1952 it was here that the Netherlands' first computer, the ARRA 1, was developed. In 1988 the first e-mail on Dutch soil was received here and it made the Netherlands the second country in the world (after the US) to be connected to the internet. On top of that, neighboring SARA, home of the national super computers TERAS and ASTER, once housed the servers of Planet Internet, my former employer and former owner of a certain SGI Challenge DM before this became a kitchen appliance.

Rumor even has it that this little project was one of the reasons I was asked to come for a job interview at CWI in the first place. Only after my first-year contract had been extended I felt confident enough to actually having the fridge in Amsterdam. I think a little voice inside me was always warning me that once these geeks would have their hands on the loot I would somehow find myself in the unemployment office before you can say: "Industry-leading performance high-speed HiPPI adapter".

Step 9: Sons of SGI Fridge

14 Feb. 2004: Build your own Silicon Graphics Refrigerator
Over the years I have had many questions from visitors asking if they could buy the SGI refrigerator or if I had any more of these huge cabinets lying around (yeah, sure, I keep two of them behind the couch and one under my bed for emergencies) because they wished to build there own. Well, look no further then the e-mail I received this morning from Jordan Zebor:

"First of all I wanna say that your transformation of the SGI into something useful is great. We actually have one of these sitting around that we are trying to get rid of. The machine is in San Diego so if anybody wanted to pick it up they could take it.

So, visit (To late! Read the next bit) and get in touch with Jordan and maybe one day you will own the most stylish piece of equipment since... well, since the Silicon Graphics Refrigerator I guess.

17 May 2004: We have a Winner!
My heart filled with joy when Jordan send an e-mail this morning telling me that some Geek-with-power-tools had actually driven to San Diego and picked up the DM. According to Jordan :

"It was so heavy trying to get it into the front seat of his car. When he drove off it looked like he couldn't shift at all.

Thanks again for helping me get rid of that old piece of ...uhh history."

I bet it was a Volkswagen.

29 June 2005: More SGI Fridge potential.
Opportunity knocked again when I received this email from Ronald Knol:

We have an old Silicon Graphics Onyx1 rackmount chassis here that we gutted, so it's completely empty and ready for a fridge. It has the blue (sgi Vault) doors on it, and black side skins and black back door.

It's just like the one in the picture on your website (behind the Challenge S).

We are going to throw it in the garbage, we need the storage space (and I don't have space for it at home).

Can you post this availability on your website? We will not ship it, whoever wants it needs to come pick it up from our office. Here is a URL for our location.

1 Dec. 2005: Tossed it.
Justin Ryan responded to Ronald Knol's offer:

"howdy matthijs!

I am interested in contacting the party in vancouver with an old sgi challenge server to pick up. there is a mapquest link, but no email.."

Unfortunately he was to late to save the poor machine because Justine send me another email saying:

"The guys in vancouver tossed the challenge a long time ago."

17 Sept. 2007: Ready to be friged...
Ronald Knol hasn't forgotten us. I received this email from him:

Hallo Matthijs,

Ready to be friged is an sgi Onyx1 rackmount server (not deskside) which actually is fully functional (InfiniteReality graphics, 8 CPUs, IRIX 6.5).

For fans of the Stargate SG-1 tv show, this is the machine that rendered all the Stargate 'puddles' for the last ten years and it provided our bread and butter for a good couple of years.

We purchased the system in 1995 with the Kodak Cineon software, the package (software and hardware) was close to $1,000,000 US...

It is available for pickup in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Appendix: Other People's Weird Hardware Projects
If you somehow enjoyed this site you might get a laugh out of
one of these useful, useless, weird, bizarre, sick or otherwise related websites.

Neatorama: Case Mod – The Ultimate List
My Other VAX is a VAXbar
VAXTap 2000 Pro
Espressigo - The SGI Espresso Machine
Unusual and rare SGI stuff at Jodeman's
rOctane - The SGI HiFi-Miniset
Iris Indigo Case Mod
Silicon Graphics mods at
Numerous SGI Case Mods at
SGI mods at SiliconBunny
SGI O2 conversion

Old SGI Fridge Guestbook

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