From Russia, With Skepticism

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A Dark Horse Gets a Favorable Introduction

The cover article of the February 15, 1999 issue of Microprocessor Report (MPR) was dedicated to a proposed design for a high-end 64-bit microprocessor. That is no more unusual than finding a photograph of a professional athlete on the cover of Sports Illustrated. What made the story noteworthy was that the design originated from a group of former supercomputer designers in Russia lead by the distinguished architect Boris Babaian, who formed a company, called Elbrus International Ltd., based in the Cayman Islands.

At the time of the MPR article, entitled ‘The Russians Are Coming’, the hypothetical processor, called the Elbrus E2k, existed only as a Verilog language description of its logic, not as a physical device, or even a mask database. Since then Elbrus has been in the hunt for venture capital in order to bring their design to realization. Now a year and a half later the E2k still only exists as RTL (register-transfer-language) style Verilog description currently in the process of detailed logic verification, according to Elbrus’ web site ( Elbrus claims it needs $60 million dollars and 3 years to implement the design. An additional $5 to $10 million was needed to build a small version of the chip for embedded control applications. Apparently the full size version of E2k will cost more.

What makes the E2k contentious is the breathtaking claims made for it by supporters. The E2k is predicted to perform far beyond today’s high-end MPU champions, such as Alpha and PA-RISC. Even more incredibly, it is claimed to be superlative in many other aspects, such as modest power consumption and die size for a processor of its class. The surprising and disappointing aspect of MPR’s 1999 article about the E2k was author Keith Diefendorff’s virtual lack of critical analysis of these claims. This newsletter has developed a notoriety among many in the industry for the skeptical, and occasionally disrespectful, treatment that much less outlandish claims about future products receive when the design team does not hail from a certain major chip manufacturer whose headquarters are in Santa Clara. For a design house that has never delivered a significant and competitive MPU before, the kid-glove treatment Elbrus received was all the more puzzling. Unsurprisingly, in the hunt for backing in the West, Elbrus supporters rely heavily upon the MPR article for credibility.

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