05-05-2021 | By Robin Mitchell
Recent reports show that Russia has started to develop their own motherboards to help improve security and remove dependency on outside nations. However, researching the topic shows something far more interesting. Why is Russia building its own hardware, why is Russia creating its own CPUs advantageous, and who else is going for isolationism?
The rise of the internet and computing technology has seen almost all aspects of life controlled by it. From controlling electrical grids to processing sensitive government documents, electronics is involved in all stages, and ensuring the security of such devices is essential.
While the security of the past was mostly concerned with the prevention of outside attacks, new technologies allow developers of hardware direct access to whatever system the hardware is installed into. For example, a computer sold as a desktop PC could have additional chips embedded into the motherboard. These could allow a remote attacker direct access into the CPU and memory.
Such fears (which are legitimate and rational) result in some nations aiming for hardware isolationism to create all the hardware needed for key applications. Recently, Russia has been reported to developing its own range of motherboards and monitors for use in government and business computers to provide additional security.
The motherboards utilise the AMD B450 chipset and work with common AMD Ryzen CPUs, support up to 4 x 3200MHz RAM slots, and two PCIe 3.0 x 16 slots. Furthermore, the motherboard supports a Trusted Platform Module which helps to provide additional security by storing keys needed to verify the integrity of the PC.
The recent reports look boring and unimportant, but researching the topic deeper reveals fascinating facts around processor design in Russia and its advantages.
While China is new to the CPU ISA scene, Russia has been developing CPUs since the 1970s. One of their more famous ranges is the Elbrus CPU designed by MCST (Moscow Center of SPARC Technologies), and manufactured by TSMC. At the same time, the company itself is very small (with a revenue of $25 million), the processors designed to support multiple features not found on mainstream processors.
The Elbrus range of processors(which is also the name of the ISA), are CPUs that can be used in desktop, business, and server environments with variations to meet the needs of each application. While these processors support the x86 architecture, their main instruction set is a 512-bit wide Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW).
The brilliance of VLIW is that it separates many commonly used functions into individual functional units which are chained together. From there, a single instruction can perform multiple operations in a single clock cycle as the results of the first operation carry into the second, third, and fourth.
For example, a VLIW may have four ALUs in series, and this could allow for four types of addition in a single operation. The same setup could be tailored to perform vector maths, multiplication, and other advanced operations, all in a single instruction. Interestingly, the Sega Saturn includes a chip with such features and is critical in some 3D games.
The Elbrus range of processors also supports x86 through dynamic binary translation whereby x86 instructions are translated into those readable by the Elbrus CPU and executed on the fly. Such a feature allows a custom CPU to support multiple architectures and thus support established software (such as Windows and Linux) and provides time for developers to explore the native ISA and understand how to make use of it better.
Generally, isolationism hurts economies, technology, and general development. However, as technology becomes integrated into infrastructure and critical components, developing technology inside a nation with no outside influence helps to improve security dramatically. That is not to say that the newly developed technology is 100% secure, but the foreign nature (compared to an outside attacker), makes it harder to attack. Furthermore, the ability to design and manufacture equipment entirely inside a nation helps prevent implanted devices (such as tiny chips), from being integrated by foreign manufacturers.
Over the coming decades, we will see custom hardware becoming more important. As a result, countries worldwide will begin to look at how they can manufacture their own computers and other critical components. The challenge now is for nations to develop their own semiconductor fabrication sites that can match those produced by industry leaders such as TSMC and Intel.
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