Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – soon to enter its second month – has triggered the most sweeping round of sanctions since the Cold War, with businesses from Disney to McDonald’s suspending operations in Russia. The IT sector was no exception, with virtually all of the heavy hitters ending sales in the country, including AMD, Intel, Microsoft and Nvidia and the big three cloud providers. Today, Russian group RSC touts its “Tornado” supercomputing platform as the country’s answer to the shutdown, highlighting how the platform can interact with other native Russian hardware.
RSC, which describes itself as a “leading in Russia and well-known worldwide” IT solutions company, advertises its Tornado products as “high-performance, energy-efficient blade servers with high installation density and liquid cooling 100% direct with hot water”.[.]Not even a year ago, RSC press releases celebrated the scientific achievements of Tornado systems built with Intel Xeon processors, announced partnerships with international companies to boost Russian supercomputing, and heralded IO500 victories of systems based on RSC and Intel.
Times have certainly changed.
In the latest RSC press release, there is no mention of companies other than RSC Group, or even countries other than Russia. Instead, the company describes itself as Russia’s “national champion” and describes how the use of its technology can help the country “accelerate import substitution”.
RSC says its Tornado servers are “designed to use different types of microprocessor architectures in an installation cabinet, including those based on Russian Elbrus processors, which will accelerate the pace of import substitution in the high-computing field.” performance, data center processing solutions and data storage systems.
These Elbrus processors, products of the Moscow Center of SPARC Technologies (MCST), do not have an illustrious track record. The processors see virtually no use outside of Russia, and even then they are largely purchased at the behest of the Russian government. As reported by Tom’s gearless than six months ago, Sberbank – a Russian state-owned bank and the largest in the country – publicly stated that MCST’s Elbrus-8C processor had “insufficient memory, slow memory, few cores, a low frequency” and generally did not meet the functional demands of their operations compared to Intel processors (they did, however, state that they were “pleasantly surprised that [the Elbrus processor] works at all”).
Even RSC still seems to rely mostly on Intel processing. On its product page for Tornado servers, as noted in its press release, only one of its six Tornado offerings comes with Elbrus processors: the Tornado Blade Server TQN310E, which comes with four Elbrus-8SV processors. The other five products use Intel Xeon processors: four Sandy Bridge, one Ivy Bridge.
Nevertheless, RSC asserts that “the complete cycle of development and creation of computer systems based on [Tornado] is carried out on Russian territory” under an agreement with the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade. “Over the past few years, we have seen a significant development of various architectures developed specifically to solve specific algorithms,” said Egor Druzhinin, CTO of RSC Group. “We noticed this trend a few years ago and tried to develop a universal platform that could effectively integrate new approaches and solutions. This development allowed us to react quickly to the turbulent technological landscape.
RSC also offers “RSC BasIS”, a control platform for supercomputers and cloud computing centers. “The goal of our software platform is to unite independent high-performance computing and cloud centers to provide a single remote access point for the end user who needs supercomputer computing,” said said Pavel Lavrenko, director of business development of RSC Group (in translation). RSC pointed out that BasIS is used at the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg Polytechnic University and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR).
These same three institutions also represent the four systems ranked on the IO500 list (JINR is home to two RSC systems). All four of these systems use Intel processors and either Intel Omni-Path (now Cornelis Networks) or Mellanox (now Nvidia) networks, and at least two of them use Intel server boards.
Nvidia and Intel, under the terms of their announced sales suspensions, are apparently no longer supplying components to the RSC group. Cornelis Networks, which previously announced a partnership with RSC Group last June, also confirmed HPCwire that RSC Group is no longer a partner.
“The bottom line here is that the Russians already had minimal access to any state-of-the-art HPC technology, whether in components, self-assemblies, finished systems, or even the ability to build something on their own – they haven’t been world-class supercomputer makers for a number of years, and that’s almost generous,” commented Bob Sorensen, senior vice president of research at Hyperion Research. “In fact, I think their focus now is going to be tinkering with systems that fall under any kind of existing export control regulations or are generally accessible because no one follows them, so more general-purpose processors and such…. It’ is a realization that they have been more or less cut off from the ability to access advanced component technology from outside of Russia.
However, Sorensen warned that despite the posturing, it is far from the end of the world as far as Russian national interests are concerned.
“The need for access to the highest possible computing capabilities is just not as strong in Russia as it is here in the United States,” he said. “They don’t rely as much on HPC for mod sims to develop weapons systems or other pieces of the national security agenda. They just never built an infrastructure that used it to the same extent as here, or even [in] China right now. It’s not going to crush them significantly from a national perspective. They will always have access, I think, to the kinds of systems that fit relatively well into their R&D cycle.
The Fall 2021 Top500 list saw the debut of four Russian systems, at places 19, 36, 40 and 43. These first two were built by IPE, Nvidia and Tyan for YANDEX, a Russian internet company; the third, built by Inspur and Nvidia and using AMD hardware, is also operated by YANDEX; the fourth, also based on Nvidia and AMD hardware, was designed for SberCloud, a cloud platform operated by the aforementioned Sberbank group.
Header image: RSC Group used an image of its Govorun supercomputer at JINR to announce the interoperability of its systems. Govorun, based on RSC’s Tornado architecture, uses three types of Intel Xeon processors, an Intel server board and an Intel Omni-Path network.
This story has been updated to reflect a statement from Cornelis Networks.