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Baikal-M: What Ecosystem Has the First Russian ARM Processor Managed to Build Around Itself

23 April 2021

By Denis Voeykov

The arrival of this processor was indeed awaited. The Ministry of Industry and Trade needed not just to make sure that the financial support for chip development had apparently paid off, but also to close the issue of the lack of a competitive environment in the market segment it had been entrusted with. With the release of Baikal-M, the monopoly in the field of general-purpose processors has disappeared in Russia: not one but two domestic ranges of such chips have become available. As far as Russian hardware and software developers and state customers are concerned, they finally have better opportunities to be fully included in the import substitution programs that have been so widely declared and supported in Russia at the state level for several years now. Some of these developers were interviewed by CNews for this survey.

Baikal with the “M” Letter

A year and a half ago, the Russian microelectronics market was hit by a remarkable event. In October 2019, Baikal Electronics unveiled the first domestic general-purpose processor implemented on the ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) architecture.

The new product is called Baikal-M. It is a 28-nm processor-based so-called system-on-a-chip. At its heart are eight 64-bit ARM Cortex-A57 (ARMv8-A; four clusters of two cores) with up to 1.5GHz and an 8-core Mali-T628 GPU with up to 700MHz with hardware acceleration for H.264/H.265 video playback. The tier 3 cache (L3) is 8MB. RAM parameters are the following: 2 × DDR3/DDR4-2133 64 bit DRAM, ECC. The declared energy consumption is less than 30 W.

Public presentation of Baikal-M by the General Director of

Public presentation of Baikal-M by the General Director of Baikal Electronics Andrey Evdokimov

Baikal Electronics has had a partnership with the British ARM corporation (the copyright holder of the architecture of the same name) since 2014 when the company had acquired a license for the then most advanced processor core, which formed the basis of the future chip.

At the time, the company was already finalizing the development of its first 28-nanometre Baikal-T processor, which saw the light of day in mid-2015. However, it was implemented on a fundamentally different architecture—MIPS (also designed according to the RISC concept, i.e., for processors with a reduced instruction set) and is aimed to be used in telecom, storage, and embedded systems.

New ARM processor by Baikal Electronics (on the right) compared to the old MIPS chip

New ARM processor by Baikal Electronics (on the right) compared to the old MIPS chip

In this regard, Baikal Electronics at that time explained its interest in the ARM architecture by the vastness of the ecosystem, which was growing at one of the fastest rates in the world and was critical to the market success of the general-purpose processor that Baikal-M was.

The “M” in the name of the Baikal-M ARM processor can be taken as a reference to mobility. Due to its special features, the ARM architecture is most widely used in chips for smartphones and other portable devices. In recent years, however, architectural specialization has become more diffuse and chips have become more versatile. The Baikal-M is therefore primarily designed for use in desktop and all-in-one PCs, mini servers, and industrial systems.

Its simplified versions Baikal-M/2 and Baikal-M/2+, which Baikal Electronics announced in October 2020, have been aimed at the light workstation and thin client segments.

The company is now finishing its work on its subsequent ARM processor, the 16-nm Baikal-S, designed for high-end server systems. The company is also already working on its next-generation processors, both ARM-based for consumer systems and RISC-V for embedded and telecom applications. The details of these projects have not yet been released.

Status of the Russian Chip and Prospects for Demand

One year after Baikal-M had been presented, the Ministry of Industry and Trade awarded it the status of a Russian second-tier chip, indicating that it was officially classified as an industrial product manufactured in Russia. Based on this, the processor was included in the ministry’s thematic register. It is this register that the officials are obliged to use as a priority when making thematic public procurements.

Under the current regulatory framework, the designer of a Russian second-tier chip is required to hold the rights to its design documentation, and the design, development, and testing of the chips must take place within the borders of our country. The only fundamental difference from tier 1 microchips is that they are directly manufactured abroad.

The current state of affairs in Russia is such that no processor development of small topology can obtain tier 1 status by definition—we simply do not have the appropriate production capacity. The creation in Russia of factories capable of producing chips with a topology of 28-nm and below (down to 5-nm) is stipulated in the strategy for the development of the electronics industry for the period until 2030, approved in January 2020—but without any clear timetable. Meanwhile, Mikron, the most advanced company in this respect, has set up mass production only under the 90-nm norms and has acquired the capacity to produce processors in 65-nm topology for developmental research. As such, all developers of advanced domestic chips tend to order the production thereof from the Taiwanese TSMC factory.

Processor Baikal-M

Processor Baikal-M

In any case, for Baikal-M, the status granted at the end of 2020 has become extremely relevant because of the trend towards the exclusion from the aforementioned register of the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the machines based on foreign chips.

For example, as early as of January 1, 2021, all storage systems must be built on domestic processors in order to be considered as manufactured in Russia. At the very end of December 2020, the government approved similar legislation for several other categories of equipment: laptops and tablets, desktops and all-in-one PCs, SSDs, motherboards, scanners, printers, MFPs, etc. The legislative changes will come into force at different times for different product categories, between July 1, 2021, and January 1, 2022.

New Funding, New Runs

The fact that Baikal Electronics has a new investor in the company and the plans announced immediately thereafter for a genuine mass production of chips are indicative of the company’s ability to meet the emerging large-scale demand for its processors.

Previously, the key shareholders of Baikal Electronics were T-Platforms and T-Nano (the RUSNANO’s technology center). The development of Baikal-M, as well as Baikal-T and Baikal-S, was mainly funded by T-Nano, with fund raising from the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Now all indications are that a majority stake in the company (i.e., at least 50%) will end up in the ownership of the Varton Group. The arrival of this investor was announced in October 2020. The word “group” can only be used conventionally about it. As a representative of Varton previously noted to CNews, this was some kind of conglomerate of legally unconnected very different businesses (LED production, software development, etc.).

The transaction with Varton has not yet been completed; all legal issues would probably be closed in April 2021. However, back in October 2020, from the words of General Director of Baikal Electronics Andrey Evdokimov, one could conclude that Varton had already started to be very involved in the company’s development at that time.

At the same time, it was announced that 13,000 Baikal-M had been ordered at the Taiwanese TSMC factory. By the end of 2020 a batch of 100 thousand units will be ordered there and in Q1 2021—at least 100 thousand units. According to the current information, given the extreme capacity constraints of all semiconductor manufacturers in the world, in Q3 2021 the company expects to start shipping chips from the first batch of 130,000 units. The subsequent batches, larger in volume, are expected in 2022.

Such runs are a clear breakthrough for Baikal Electronics. In the five years that have passed since the development of the Baikal-T chips, only about 50,000 of them have been produced, and as for the new Baikal-M, the company had only engineering samples from a small batch of about 2,000 pieces.

Moreover, orders for hundreds of thousands of chips can also be considered a completely new phenomenon for modern Russia. As CNews has found out, the Baikal’s main competitor has much more modest plans for its products.

Note also that after Varton entered the arena, Baikal Electronics had public plans to develop the aforementioned new simplified Baikal-M/2 and Baikal-M/2+ chips. Before this, the company had announced its new products in January 2016.

Business Model: a Level Playing Field for All Partners

It is noteworthy that after Baikal Electronics gets new shareholders, the business model of the producer, according to its General Director Andrey Evdokimov, will not undergo serious changes. The company will retain its focus on developing chips for a wide range of computing applications, and the product line will expand in response to market demand. He also noted that Baikal Electronics did not intend to engage in the production of final devices (computers, monoblocks, laptops, etc.). 

“The team now faces the challenge of ensuring that Baikal processors are compatible with all major elements of the Russian IT landscape in the short term. This implies strengthening cooperation with all domestic hardware and software vendors on an equal footing, developing technological partnerships in terms of product integration and creating integrated hardware and software solutions, where we have already achieved considerable success,” Andrey Evdokimov said.

Adapting Russian Operating Systems

Proof of the validity of Andrey Evdokimov’s words above can be seen in the comments of competing domestic OS developers, who are actively pursuing projects to integrate with Baikal-M.

In particular, Basalt SPO, which develops the Alt OS line, stressed in a conversation with CNews that the aarch64 ARM platform implemented in Baikal-M was one of the target architectures for the organization. In the summer of 2020, the company released a new generalized ISO image of the operating system running on Baikal-M, and a universal secure distribution, recently certified by the FSTEC, was released in the autumn of the same year.

The company says it is working closely with Baikal Electronics to form a universal Linux kernel with the Baikal-M support implemented. Baikal Electronics regularly releases new versions of the SDK (software development kit)—a set of firmware that updates the functionality of the motherboard; this includes Linux kernel updates as well. Basalt SPO assures that the Alt OS currently works on all existing boards with Baikal-M processors.

In this regard, the company reminds us that its developments to support aarch64 are hosted in the Sisyphus open repository. Developers of various applications can use these packages to create their own products capable of running on devices with Baikal-M processors.

Representatives of Red Soft, the open-source developer of the Red OS operating system, assured CNews that they considered Baikal-M with the company's OS on board an excellent base for entry-level office machines and information booths. Red Soft notes that with the move to the latest Linux 5.10 kernel, that support for Mali graphics accelerator included into Baikal-M has been updated, allowing for more comfortable handling of media content as well as improved responsiveness of the operating system’s graphical interface. Red OS version 7.3 is currently being adapted for Baikal-M.

The Rostelecom’s subsidiary, Open Mobile Platform (OMP), developing and implementing the Russia's first mobile OS, Aurora, noted in a conversation with CNews that they had had the experience of cooperating with Baikal Electronics on Baikal-T as part of their R&D work. This interaction, with the advent of Baikal-M, has received a strong impetus for further development, especially given the experience and expertise of OMP in supporting ARM architecture, the most prevalent in the mobile device market.

In November 2019, an agreement was signed on the creation of information kiosks based on domestically produced, elemental base and Aurora OS between OMP, Baikal Electronics, and Itelma, a research and production enterprise. These kiosks are intended for use as infomats at MPSCs, prefectures, town halls, court offices, as infomats and self-registration terminals at medical institutions, as devices for automatic examinations at the traffic police, and as self-service terminals at employment services.

In 2020, the first results of this cooperation were presented at industry fairs: infokiosks on Baikal-M with the secure Aurora OS version 3.2.1.

As for Astra Linux, according to CEO, Ilya Sivtsev, interaction with Baikal Electronics has been and is being carried out in two areas: hardware platform support and software ecosystem development.

In terms of hardware compatibility, Astra Linux operating system on SOC Baikal-M is fully operational, with the support for Mali-T628 video chip, including the use of “free” video drivers. At present, the main task is to ensure the correct functioning of Astra Linux on all new motherboards of Russian manufacturers. As part of the design work, the issue of optimizing the performance and power consumption of Astra Linux on domestic computing hardware is also being addressed.

In the area of ecosystem development, Baikal Electronics partners have successfully ported to Astra Linux Special Edition running on Baikal processors, the MyOffice office package, Dr.Web antivirus, CryptoPro CSP, VipNet Client, Termidesk VDI client, RuBackup backup tool, TrueConf video conferencing client, WorksPad chatbot platform, and other software solutions. The Liberica JDK Java development and runtime environment has been confirmed to be stable and efficient, allowing many Russian companies to use their Java applications without making changes to the source code.

“In cooperation with Baikal Electronics, we have carried out comprehensive research and have been able to provide customers with ready-made hardware and software complexes with a Baikal-M processor running the Astra Linux operating system for pilot testing in various versions, such as a workstation, terminal station, and monoblock. In addition, we have succeeded in implementing practical application scenarios for the OS on the Russian computing platform that are relevant to consumers. We have always supported domestic computer developers, but now this area has become strategic; therefore, any of their products immediately gets first-level priority for integration with the entire Astra Linux product stack," Ilya Sivtsev says.

Basic Hardware

The description of the hardwire infrastructure surrounding the Baikal-M should start with the motherboards. In October 2020, Andrey Evdokimov of Baikal Electronics noted that at the time, the company's own boards in the Mini-ITX form factor, which it produced under license from T-Platforms, as well as Edelweiss and Project Lagrange products, had become most widespread.

Edelweiss was a pioneer in this field, presenting its development in the Mini-ITX form factor in July 2020. The company points out that its board has a compact and unified design and can be used as part of any Mini-ITX compatible desktop solution.

The Edelweiss board has a compact and unified design

The Edelweiss board has a compact and unified design

In preparation for this review, Edelweiss also noted the emergence of its E107 server board, designed to build a range of entry-level general-purpose servers, distributed DSS platforms in rack or blade server format, as well as advanced NAS platforms.

The Lagrange Project is the developer of the Lagrange Sarmah SoM processor module in a 70x70mm form factor with integrated DDR4 RAM. The company told CNews that that solution, together with its carrierboard, allowed the organization to offer a range of Baikal-M motherboards in Micro-ATX, Mini-ITX, and Pico-ITX formats.

Serial samples of both the Lagrange processor modules themselves and the motherboards based on them will go on sale at the end of March 2021. The company provides free engineering samples of motherboards pre-installed with the Alt Linux operating system on loan for testing and feasibility assessment.

So far, 3Logic Group, Aquarius, and Depo have also told CNews about the development of their Baikal-M boards. The former reported that serial production of the respective products was planned for the summer of 2021. In the meantime, engineering samples have been produced and were on display at the 3Logic demo center.

Depo notes that it has developed a motherboard for personal devices and a single-processor server motherboard for servers and DSS. However, the company assured CNews that it was already developing a dual-processor server motherboard for the forthcoming Baikal-S. It will find use in Depo servers and data storage systems, which will be available in late 2022 or early 2023.

Computer Science

Edelweiss may also be a pioneer in producing off-the-shelf technical solutions for Baikal-M. At the end of August 2020, the company announced the release of its touchscreen monoblock on this chip running the Alt OS. The system supports up to 64 GB of DDR4 RAM.

The Edelweiss Baikal-M range also includes an SFF-format system unit, a system unit with integrated uninterruptible power supply and power failure protection, and a range of computers in the compact desktop form factor for creating automated workstations.

Edelweiss monoblock based on the Baikal-M

Edelweiss monoblock based on the Baikal-M

The Lagrange Project has created a compact nettop using the Baikal-M, just under the size of a 3.5” hard disk, based on the Lagrange Sarmah motherboard. The company calls it a blade server that allows up to 15 Baikal-M-based machines to be housed in one 3U server enclosure, as well as combining them with computers and acceleration equipment on other architectures (x86/64 and FPGA) to build a heterogeneous computer. In addition, Lagrange is now developing a monoblock based on the Baikal-M and the Lagrange Sarmah board with a 27-inch screen diagonal.

The 3Logic Group, which produces its computing equipment under the Graviton brand, has developed a range of desktop monoblocks, double-loop monoblocks, desktop and small-format PCs on Baikal-M in addition to the aforementioned boards. Serial production of this equipment, like the boards, is planned for the summer of 2021. Engineering samples are also available at the 3Logic Group demo center.

Depo told CNews that the company had already developed a PC in a compact desktop case, an all-in-one PC, and a dual-circuit system combining two physically isolated PCs in a single all-in-one case, based on its own boards. Samples of these devices will become available for order as part of a testing program in July-September 2021.

On the server side, Depo has developed an entry-level universal server with 100 GFLOPS, single-controller storage systems with 8-12 drives, and a fault-tolerant dual-controller storage system with 24 drives on its boards. Server samples are already available to order, with DSS samples due in July 2021.

The models in question will be put into series production in Q2 and Q3 2021. Depo is now working to obtain approval from the Ministry of Industry and Trade for the production of these models in Russia.

Notably, Depo has already started to develop a range of thin clients and laptops based on the Baikal-M/2 and Baikal-M/2+ mobile processors that Baikal Electronics is currently developing.

Aquarius told CNews that it planned to launch several Baikal-M-based client devices and servers in 2021. In 2022-2024, the company plans to expand its range of client devices (PCs, monoblocks, laptops, and thin clients), single- and dual-socket servers, and DSS based on both Baikal-M and Baikal-S.

Applied Software

According to Andrey Evdokimov, at the fourth, by definition the most extensive level of the Baikal-M ecosystem, Baikal Electronics is interacting with a very wide range of domestic developers. These include Kaspersky Lab, Doctor Web, creators of My Office and P7-Office, TrueConf, Termidesk, Tionix, and others.

However, the quantity and quality of these links is literally growing before our eyes. For example, an announcement by the developers of the Russian office suite My Office about the compatibility of its desktop editors with the Baikal-M hardware platform was published just while CNews was preparing this review.

“Our main focus now is precisely on developing the software ecosystem around the Baikal processor, which is very important for meeting the needs of computer technology end-users. Fortunately, we are not doing this alone; dozens of Russian development companies have already seen the promise of this direction, believed in it, and issued compatibility releases of their products with Baikal. All together we are doing a great job and by the end of this year, we expect the further serious expansion of the Baikal ecosystem, especially in the area of application software,” Andrey Evdokimov notes.

Direct Speech

To conclude this review (it is not intended to be exhaustive; CNews did not manage to talk to all representatives of the Baikal-M ecosystem), here are statements of top managers of the interviewed partners of Baikal Electronics about the first ARM processor of this company.

“Baikal-M has established itself as a state-of-the-art domestic electronics solution meeting the highest global standards while being one of the most economically attractive,” says Alexey Kogan, Director of Strategic Development at Open Mobile Platform.

“Baikal-M is a development of a decent standard,” says Sergey Belkin, Aquarius Vice-President and Head of Technical Directorate. “Baikal Electronics is making a significant contribution to the development of domestic microelectronics. The use of common architectures, such as AArch64, which have an extensive ecosystem, makes it easier building applicated solutions and migration, which is an advantage. There are disadvantages too, but they are mostly temporary and have to do with circulation and price.”

“We are delighted to be among the first to realize the potential of the Baikal-M processor to create functional and secure workplaces,” said Alexander Grischenkov, CEO of Edelweiss. “The pilot projects have shown a high level of interest in our solutions and we are preparing to launch a new range of devices in the near future.”

“The prospects for ARM processors across the entire spectrum of equipment are now beyond doubt,” says Evgeny Sinelnikov, Head of the Saratov-based unit of Basalt SPO. “With today’s security requirements, standardization—a move away from the embedded development style of producing a different kernel for each device and a boot loader tied to it—is the main problem with OS development. Only when the user is able to use any OS for ARM64 on any device on this architecture will we achieve a truly valuable result for our customers. I should point out that this is not only a Russian problem but a general international one. I hope that we will solve it together with Baikal Electronics and other hardware developers and manufacturers.”

“As developers of domestic motherboards, we have been waiting for such a processor,” assures Alexander Kornev, CEO of Lagrange Project. “What matters to us is both the speed to build a complete PC and the availability of documentation and technical support to enable us to design our own motherboard. We’ve got it all in the new processor. The Baikal-M’s performance has even exceeded our expectations. We set up an experimental application software development workstation in the lab on a computer with our Lagrange Sarmah motherboard. It’s a pleasant experience, with full screen resolution, fast application compilation in the QtCreator environment, and good responsiveness in the office suite. We believe that Baikal-M has every chance of becoming truly mass-produced and accessible to a wide range of consumers.”

“It is important, from our point of view, that the processor manufacturer is turned towards the market and aims at mass application, rather than being locked into producing its own PCs,” adds Roman Zharkikh, Technical Director of Lagrange Project. “This approach by many leading foreign manufacturers has enabled them to increase their chip runs to enormous proportions. However, where there are large print runs, the quality is higher and the price is lower. With this approach, however, the manufacturer has to support developers with open-source materials: reference designs, open-source distributions, experience-sharing forums—the stuff that builds the engineering community. With this support, the developer’s decision to switch to Baikal-M will become a frequent occurrence, and the speed at which new developments are brought to market will increase significantly.”

“We are extremely positive about another domestic chip that can be used in thin clients and entry-level workstations,” says Petr Shcheglov, Products Deputy Director of Moy Ofis (My Office). “The Baikal-M processor is well suited to create significantly more secure solutions from an information security point of view due to the design features of the chip.  'Moy Ofis' looks forward to the further development of Baikal Electronics’ product line and the introduction of more powerful Baikal chips that will enable even more applications on this platform.”

Source: CNews, 22.04.2021

Reference

Baikal Electronics is a joint venture between the T-Platforma Russian supercomputer developer and the T-Nano nanocenter of the RUSNANO’s Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programs. The company specializes in the design of the ARM- and MIPS-based integrated chips and crystal systems. The company’s developments are designed for use in the energy-efficient computer and industrial systems with different performance and functionality.

For additional information, please visit baikalelectronics.ru