Andrey Evdokimov, General Director of Baikal Electronics, Talks about the Prospects of Domestic Electronics Production
“Russia can meet the basic needs for processors on its own right now,” General Director of Baikal Electronics, Andrey Evdokimov told Izvestia in an interview. He also spoke about the risks of US sanctions against the supply of foreign components to domestic companies, the opportunities for Russia to produce ultramodern microchips, and Russia’s chances of becoming one of the world leaders in the electronics industry.
— The 7-nm and 5-nm (nanometer) chips are now considered revolutionary in their size. Will Russia ever produce one of these?
— Everyone likes to write and talk about cutting-edge 7- and 5-nm technology because it sounds cool and is well advertised. But the reality is that even 65-nm has a million applications. Let’s take TSMC, the world’s largest contract chipmaker, which now has the factories to build those very processors in 7- and 5-nanometer technologies. The company continues to build factories to produce 180-nm and 90-nm chips, and these lines are utilized for 100%.
— Because all car electronics, all Internet of things, all domestic appliances, and many other things are “fat” processors, whose production is fine-tuned to near perfection and yields a defect rate approaching 0%. They are cheap, clear, fast, and efficient. In anything that flies into space, 5-nm is nowhere near it. Anything that rides and floats doesn’t even have 28-nm. The 65-nm processors are still very relevant today. My point is that in the event of hypothetical isolation from the production of advanced processors, Russian processors would be enough to meet the most basic needs of the state.
— Which processors can be developed and produced in Russia right now?
— Those with 90-nm chips. The elements that make up a processor chip are measured in nanometres: the smaller the element, the more of them you can fit on the chip area. Micron has something to produce 65-nm chips. But we are not considering this option at the moment because this topology is not currently suitable for our products. One of our flagship products, the Baikal-M processor, is designed with a 28-nm topology. We order the production thereof in Taiwan from TSMC. Nvidia, AMD, and Apple follow the same model today. We could, of course, design the Baikal-M for 65-nm, but then it would be expensive and not as efficient.
— But still, should Russia aim at producing processors with 7- and 5-nanometer technology processes?
— One should strive to become part of the world of modern microelectronics. Imagine a honey pie with lots of thin layers. The division of labor in the processor-led microelectronics industry is structured roughly the same way. Some companies make chemistry for etching microchips, some make some machines, some make other machines, some make lasers for third type machines, and so on. If a country is part of the “pie”, without which it cannot exist, it is assured of technological well-being. Otherwise, we risk becoming a “third world” country. It is now impossible to be a “first world” country by growing bananas or extracting minerals. I think Russia understands this and is doing a lot to become part of the “pie”.
— Like what?
— Most importantly, perhaps, the National Strategy for the Development of the Electronic Industry to 2030 was approved last year. According to it, factories for the production of chips with a topology of up to 5-nm should appear in Russia.
Announcing such a plan alone improves the situation, as it draws people’s attention to the industry. The younger generation sees that this is promising, and goes to study in the relevant professions. Engineering is back in vogue, and so is microelectronics. So, there will be new engineering centers, new educational programs. The number of specialists will grow. Specialists are a major resource for this industry. If the limit of technological progress is reached, the limiting factor is not money, but people.
The strategy may not be 100% effective and will not make Russia the most competitive in the world in one moment, but it will still do a lot. Even if we get a factory to produce 16-nm instead of 5-nm chips, that will be great. Any factory would definitely allow Russia to become more independent of foreign electronics and strengthen its engineering potential. From here, there will be the impetus and the prospect of finding a niche in the semiconductor industry, which, remember, is made up of many majors with a critical dependence on one another. It will be difficult, but I think anything is possible.
— What problems may arise on the way to this goal?
— We have a difficult staffing situation. Sophisticated technology requires skilled people with a wealth of experience. If we are talking about programming, we have such people in Russia. There are already fewer specialists for the physical design of microchips. We feel there are very few technologists and engineers.
— Will buying second-hand equipment make it easier for Russia to set up its own factories?
— There’s nothing wrong with that, we’re not talking about a car with a motoring life here. If, with proper maintenance, the equipment Russia needs works well, then why not buy it. I suspect a non-new stepper (a machine used in the manufacture of semiconductor integrated circuits—Izvestiya) will already be very well set up and debugged, which will only save the buyer time and money. Sometimes, entire production lines are bought and nothing happens—everything works. Buying used equipment is not a good or bad thing, just normal. In the case of starting production in Russia, it might even be a logical step.
— Aren’t you afraid that in the event of political aggravation, Baikal Electronics would be cut off from TSMC the way Huawei was cut off before?
— This is a fundamental risk to which all Russian chipmakers are exposed. It’s hard to do anything about it, because you can’t get better service, quality, and speed than TSMC anywhere else. There is a hypothetical possibility to shift orders to another manufacturer, but this means a big expense and delay. This pattern is common to any chip manufacturer.
— Who could be a hypothetical alternative to TSMC in producing your 28-nm processors?
— You could try transferring Baikal-M production to the Chinese SMIC factory, for example. It is necessary to note that the sanctions do not imply the USA’s outright ban on TSMC from working with Huawei. Huawei will simply be put on the list of organizations banned from supplying American technology, and then each semiconductor manufacturer has to decide at its own risk whether it has American technology or not.
— Given the current political factors, will there be computers and smartphones powered by domestic processors in Russia?
— A computer powered by a Russian processor? Here it is, I work on it, and nothing bad happens, I don’t even swear (laughs). Servers? They will appear. Laptops? They will definitely appear. We are actively involved in all these projects. Smartphones are a tricky issue, as it is a highly optimized system. I now find it difficult to create such a system in Russia. It is a specific product.
— Can computers powered by Baikal stand next to Intel and AMD computers in a shop five years from now and compete for the attention of the average user?
— So far, we do not consider the end-user market to be a target one. But this may change when the next generation of our processors comes out and we and our partners create a good optimized workstation or a good optimized laptop based on them—then it will be possible to channel it into the consumer segment as well. It is still premature to talk about this, but we certainly have Napoleonic plans.
— When can we expect new laptops powered by your processors?
— I can’t answer that question exactly, but I would guess that new Baikal-powered laptops would be available by the end of 2022. We are discussing several such projects based on Baikal-M, but there are still some issues that need to be addressed. First and foremost, these are battery life and appearance. In any case, I think the first customers for these laptops will still be state-owned companies, not home users.
— Are laptops the most ambitious project Baikal Electronics is working on right now?
— The biggest and most ambitious project is the 48-core Baikal-S server processor. For us, it is not comparable in value and complexity to, for example, Baikal-M Lite, a simplified, cheaper version of Baikal-M. Five Russian companies are currently developing products for Baikal-S. These are mainly servers and storage systems in various formats.
— Still, what about the Baikal-M Lite, which some are waiting for because of its cheapness?
— We are now focusing on releasing our flagship products from our processor range. First of all, we should get the 130,000 Baikal-M units ordered and start production of the Baikal-S. These are two equal tasks of the highest priority for us. The scheduled release of Baikal-M Lite is likely to be in 2022.
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