High Performance Computing History

Events like this are often an opportunity for people to informally connect with the Museum’s staff and this event was no different. Steven Muchnick was interested in donating three circuit boards from a 1980s Soviet-era high performance computer, the Elbrus-2. When he contacted the Museum’s registrar, William Harnack, William knew that I would be quite excited to add another extraordinary object connected with Soviet computing history to the collection. I was familiar with the Elbrus line of high-performance computers; I had the opportunity to interview Boris Babayan, who was one of the principal designers of the machines, in 2009 and again for an oral history project in 2012. An article on that last visit and the 2011 SoRuCom conference were recently published in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.

How had Steven Muchnick come into the possession of these circuit boards? He had visited Moscow as part of a Sun Microsystems delegation in 1992. As the Soviet Union opened up under Gorbatchev, many of the very talented scientists and engineers were of great interest to European and American companies. Muchnick requested the boards directly from Boris Babayan who gladly offered them to the American visitor.

The Elbrus series of machines was designed at the Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Technology (ITMVT) in Moscow, a prestigious institute under the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Established in 1948, it came to prominence as the leading research center for high-performance computing under Soviet computing pioneer Sergey Lebedev, in whose honor the institute was later renamed. Lebedev had led the design of the MESM computer in Kiev in the late 1940s before designing the larger BESM in Moscow in the early 1950s.

Many different computer architectures flourished in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. The range of incompatible systems, combined with Soviet industry’s difficulties with advanced manufacturing techniques, resulted in an evaluation of the future path to modernize computing. In 1967, the decision was made at the highest government levels of the Soviet Union to coordinate development and production of a new series of compatible machines with its COMECON partners. This series of machines – the Unified Series or ES – was to be based on the IBM System/360. The success of IBM’s architecture and the wide range of available software appeared to make this decision a logical choice; however, many researchers, scientists, and engineers disagreed with this decision (and do to this day) and would have favored a new, domestic series of compatible machines instead.

The role of supercomputers in the American scientific and military establishment continued to grow by the 1970s, a situation seen with much concern in the Soviet Union. Particularly the introduction of computers like the Seymour Cray-designed CDC 7600 led to serious discussions about the future of high-performance computing. Two competing proposals emerged at ITMVT: Vladimir Melnikov proposed a compatible BESM-10, Vsevolod Burtsev favored a new machine, the Elbrus, named after the mountain in the Caucasus.

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