Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—which will soon enter its second month—set off the most sweeping salvo of sanctions seen since the Cold War, with companies from Disney to McDonald’s suspending operations in Russia. The computing sector has been no exception, with virtually every heavy-hitter ending sales to the country, including AMD, Intel, Microsoft and Nvidia and all of the big three cloud providers. Now, Russia’s RSC Group is touting its “Tornado” supercomputing platform as the country’s answer to the cutoff, emphasizing how the platform can interoperate with other indigenous Russian hardware.
RSC, which describes itself as a “leading Russia and worldwide well-known” computing solutions firm, advertises its Tornado products as “high-performance and energy-efficient blade servers with high installation density and direct 100 percent hot-water liquid cooling[.]” Not even a year ago, RSC’s press releases were celebrating the scientific achievements of Tornado systems built with Intel Xeon processors, announcing partnerships with international companies to boost Russian supercomputing, and publicizing IO500 wins by RSC- and Intel-based systems.
Times have certainly changed.
In RSC’s latest press release, there is no mention of companies other than RSC Group—or, indeed, of countries outside of Russia. Instead, the company describes itself as the “national champion” of Russia and describes how use of its technology can help the country “accelerate import substitution.”
RSC claims that its Tornado servers are “designed to use various types of microprocessor architectures in one installation cabinet, including those based on Russian Elbrus processors, which will accelerate the pace of import substitution in the field of high-performance computing, solutions for data processing centers and data storage systems.”
Those 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, are largely purchased at the behest of the Russian government. As reported by Tom’s Hardware, less than six months ago, Sberbank—a state-owned Russian bank, and the largest in the country—publicly declared that MCST’s Elbrus-8C processor had “insufficient memory, slow memory, few cores, low frequency” and generally failed to meet the functional requirements of their operations as compared to Intel CPUs (they did, however, say that they were “pleasantly surprised that [the Elbrus processor] works at all”).
Even RSC appears to still rely predominantly on Intel processing. On its product page for the Tornado servers—as linked in its press release—only one of its six Tornado offerings ships with Elbrus CPUs: the Tornado Blade Server TQN310E, which ships with four Elbrus-8SV CPUs. All five of the remaining products utilize Intel Xeon CPUs—four Sandy Bridge, one Ivy Bridge.
Nevertheless, RSC claims that the “full cycle of development and creation of computer systems based on [Tornado] is carried out in 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 that are developed specifically to solve specific algorithms,” said Egor Druzhinin, technical director of RSC Group (in translation). “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 quickly respond to the turbulent technological landscape.”
RSC also offers “RSC BasIS,” a platform for controlling supercomputers and cloud computing centers. “The goal of our software platform is to unite independent high-performance computing and cloud centers in order to provide a single remote access point for the end user who needs computing on a supercomputer,” said Pavel Lavrenko, business development director for RSC Group (in translation). RSC pointed out that BasIS is in use at the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg Polytechnic University and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR).
Those same three institutions represent the four systems that ranked on the IO500 list, as well (JINR houses two RSC systems). All four of those systems use Intel processors and either Intel Omni-Path (now Cornelis Networks) or Mellanox (now Nvidia) networking, and at least two of them use Intel server boards.
Nvidia and Intel are, per the terms of their announced suspensions of sales, ostensibly no longer supplying components to RSC Group. Cornelis Networks, which had previously announced a partnership with RSC Group last June, also confirmed to HPCwire that RSC Group is no longer a partner.
“The bottom line here is that the Russians already had minimal access to any leading-edge HPC technology, whether it be 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 being generous,” commented Bob Sorensen, senior vice president of research at Hyperion Research. “Really, I think, what their goal now is going to be is to cobble together systems that fall under any kind of existing export control regulations or are generally accessible because no one’s keeping track of them—so more general-purpose processors and such. … This is a realization of the fact that they have been more or less cut off from the ability to access leading-edge component technology from outside Russia.”
However, Sorensen cautioned that despite the posturing, this is far from the end of the world as far as Russian national interests are concerned.
“The need to access the highest possible computational capabilities just isn’t as strong in Russia as it is here in the U.S.,” he said. “They are not as HPC-dependent for mod sims to develop weapons systems or other national security agenda items. They just have never built an infrastructure that used it to the same extent that is done here, or even [in] China right now. It’s not going to significantly kneecap them from a national perspective. They’ll still have access, I think, to the kinds of systems that fit relatively well into their R&D cycle.”
The fall 2021 Top500 list did see the debut of four Russian systems, in places 19, 36, 40 and 43. Those 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 built 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 advertise the interoperability of its systems. Govorun, based on RSC’s Tornado architecture, uses three kinds of Intel Xeon processors, an Intel server board and Intel Omni-Path networking.
This story was updated to reflect a statement from Cornelis Networks.