Enterprise Tech

A Second Russian Supercomputer in the U.S.? Nyet


A Cold War scene from Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"

Photograph by Everett Collection

A Cold War scene from Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"

In the supercomputer business, speed records are broken every year. Here’s one that didn’t require super-fast algorithms or speedy microprocessors: Five months after the State University of New York at Stony Brook finished installing a supercomputer from its Russian supplier, T-Platforms, the U.S. government blacklisted the company.

The first Russian supercomputer ever sold in the U.S. may be the last.

The U.S. Commerce Department, as first reported by HPCwire, last month placed T-Platforms on a list of organizations that are “engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.” Once you’re on the Entity List, U.S. businesses can’t buy your products. (Stony Brook bought the computer before the ban.)

According to the Commerce Department, which regulates the licensing of sensitive technology, the U.S. “has reason to believe that T-Platforms is associated with military procurement activities, including the development of computer systems for military end-users and the production of computers for nuclear research.”

Unless T-Platforms successfully challenges the government’s decision, the Russian company is going to have a tough time building high-performance computers for sale anywhere. Not only is the company prohibited from buying any gear produced in the U.S., it can’t use chips or other components manufactured outside the U.S. if that facility uses American technology.

T-Platforms builds its speedy machines by stringing together hundreds of off-the-shelf parts, typically from Intel (INTC), AMD (AMD), or Nvidia (NVDA). (The Stony Brook computer uses AMD Opteron 6238 processors.) “They’re essentially prohibited from being in business,” says Jack Dongarra, a distinguished professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee.

T-Platform’s co-founder, Vsevolod Opanasenko, offered a vivid view of the U.S. action, according to the website Russbase, which tracks the Russian startup and venture capital community. “We can’t make sunflower oil from any field that has been sprayed by American fertilizer,” Opanasenko wrote on his blog.

Neither Commerce nor T-Platforms responded to requests for comment.

The U.S. monitors high-performance computer technology because of concerns that commercial jobs can easily “bleed over to military use,” says Dongarra. Supercomputers, for example, do the heavy number-crunching analysis behind the design of radar systems. It happens that the same analysis (called radar cross section) is needed when designing stealth technology for use in aircraft and missiles.

Headquartered in Moscow, with offices in Germany and Taiwan, T-Platforms has been selling high-performance machines since 2002. According to the company’s website, the supercomputer it installed at Moscow State University is the fastest machine in Eastern Europe and is ranked No. 26 on the Top 500 worldwide list of most powerful supercomputers. (By way of comparison, the Stony Brook machine, at 2.5 teraflops, is considered poky in the world of supercomputers; the No. 500 machine on the Top 500 list is rated at 76.4 trillion floating point operations per second.)

Stony Brook selected the Russian machine over bids from Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) in December 2011. T-Platforms was the lowest bidder, coming in under $50,000, according to Lauren Sheprow, a university spokesperson. Stony Brook, located on the eastern portion of New York’s Long Island and ranked among the top U.S. public universities, bought the machine to test new materials for use in batteries and other components developed in a lab run by Professor Artem R. Oganov. As part of the deal, T-Platforms also agreed to help plug the machine into the university’s tech infrastructure and fine-tune the software for the school’s research needs.

That work was completed by last October, when T-Platforms announced the installation of the first Russian supercomputer in the U.S. Two months later, Stony Brook selected Dell to upgrade the machine—not unusual after the first year of operation. T-Platforms bid on that contract, Sheprow says, but Dell was the lowest bidder, at $122,406.38.

Sheprow says the business with T-Platforms has been “fulfilled and concluded.”

Sager is director of special projects for Businessweek.com.

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