Silicon Valley Firm Hires Russian Military Computer Scientist

March 03, 1992|By John Markoff | John Markoff,New York Times News Service

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- A Silicon Valley company has hired the Russian scientist who created the supercomputers used by the Soviet space program and the military to design nuclear weapons.

The contract is one of the first examples of a U.S. business tapping the wealth of scientific talent that until recently was dedicated to the former Soviet Union's vast military program.

Russian scientist Boris A. Babayan will set up a laboratory in Moscow for Sun Microsystems Inc. that will employ his team of about 50 software and hardware designers.

The team's full-time efforts will come at an astoundingly low price for Sun: Its members will be paid a little more than their current salaries of a few hundred dollars a year in U.S. dollars.

Top American computer designers sell their services for $100,000 a year or more, but both Sun officials and Mr. Babayan (pronounced bob-ee-YON) said that the Russians on the new team could not be paid that handsomely without engendering bitter feelings among their colleagues or causing inflation in the Russian economy.

Other high-technology companies are searching for similar scientific windfalls. But while the U.S. government supports efforts to keep Russian scientists away from hostile countries, it has been wary of projects like Sun's for fear that vital U.S. technology will be shared with scientists in a nation that someday could again become an enemy.

Mr. Babayan, 59, said that Russian computer scientists have been largely isolated from the rest of the world during the last three decades and, as a result, have pursued some innovative approaches new tothe West. "There are two distinct computing cultures; we have new ideas for thinking about high-speed computing hardware," he said in an interview at Sun's research laboratory in Mountain View on Thursday.

Mr. Babayan's role in what was the Soviet Union closely parallels that of Seymour R. Cray, the legendary American computer designer who for almost three decades has designed the world's fastest computers.

Mr. Cray's supercomputers, built by Control Data Corp. and later by Cray Research Inc., were used first by bomb designers to model nuclear explosions and later by other scientists for weather forecasting, aeronautical design and other research.

Mr. Babayan is now completing his latest supercomputer, called the Elbrus III. While it is based on relatively primitive hardware technology made in Russian semiconductor factories, Sun and other American computer scientists said they be

lieved the machine would match the fastest supercomputers from companies like Cray Research.

Because of the end of the Cold War and declining military spending, however, neither Mr. Babayan nor Mr. Cray at his newly founded company, Cray Computer Corp., have found customers for their newest models.

The speed of the Elbrus comes from its innovative design and its advanced software, at which Russian scientists excel, said David R. Ditzel, Sun Microsystems' director of advanced systems. "Mr. Babayan has a very clever computer architecture and a spectacularly smart research team," he said.

Executives at Microsoft Corp., the nation's largest software company, and at Apple Computer Inc., said they too were in talks with a number of Russian computer experts.

"There's not a lot of management experience there, but there are a lot of bright programmers," said Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's vice president of advanced technology and business development. "I'm looking to hire some serious people. It's a very interesting opportunity."

David C. Nagel, director of Apple's advanced technology group, said his company was exploring hiring teams of Russian researchers to work in that country for Apple.

Executives at Sun, which is based in Mountain View, said they are impressed by the design skills of the Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where Mr. Babayan works. They said the Russian scientists had a great deal of fresh insight, particularly in the area of efficiently coupling software with hardware.

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