Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, June 14, 2021

Russia Launches ARM Chip Effort To End X86 Dependence 

The Russian government is reportedly preparing to say "nyet" to American-made microprocessors, planning instead to replace Intel and AMD chips with a homegrown CPU based on an alternative architecture offered by ARM Holdings.

According to Russian media reports, Russia's Ministry of Industry and Trade plans to replace the U.S.-made processors used in government computers with a domestic processor design codenamed "Baikal." According to reports, the new 2 GHz CPU based on ARM's 64-bit kernel Cortex-A57 design will run in both government PCs and servers; it will have eight cores, like other Cortex-A57 designs.

Baikal (also the name of the region around Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake) will be designed by the Russian supercomputer company T-Platforms. The company was blacklisted by the U.S. Commerce Department in March 2013 for alleged involvement in diverting technologies to military programs. T-Platforms announced in January that its named had been removed the U.S. Export Restrictions Entity List, allowing it to "resume normal trade activities in compliance with all U.S. export control requirements." Among its services is "compute system design," according to the company's Web site.

The first microprocessors based on the ARM designed will be designated "Baikal M" and "M/S," the Russian news agency reported. No specific timeframe was given for when the processors would be ready and it is not clear who will actually manufacture the chips in the 28 nanometer design process that Baikal Electronics, the division of T-Platforms that is doing the design, has chosen for the first chip.

Beyond reports in state-controlled media, the Russian government has said little or nothing about the project, which was first reported by the Russian business daily Kommersant.

However, senior Russian officials have recently expressed concerns about using U.S.-made technology inside sensitive government systems. Referring to the need for a national card payment system, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently told government officials: "For us it is a priority that the future system rely on Russian technology. This will ensure the independence of our system, expand opportunities for customers, and resolve issues related to security and protecting information from unauthorized access."

The ITAR-TASS news agency reported that state-run companies are expected to pour "dozens of millions of dollars" into the Baikal project. Among the agencies reportedly bankrolling the effort are state military conglomerate Rostec along with technology giant Rosnano. The latter was formed to invest in nanotechnology.

The news agency said Russian state-run firms and government agencies purchase about 700,000 PCs each year worth $500 million. About 300,000 servers are purchased by the government annually at a cost of $800 million. The overall Russian market for microprocessors is estimated to be $3.5 billion.

Moscow's plan for domestic microprocessor development likely comes in response to revelations of widespread eavesdropping on international communications by the U.S. National Security Agency. One fear is that U.S.-made components might contain "back doors" that would aid the NSA in spying on Russia.

Tensions between Russian and the United States mounted when NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden was given asylum by Moscow. Those tensions have increased with Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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