The Unique “Impulse” | History of Computing in Ukraine

The Unique “Impulse”

The Scientific-Production Association (SPA) “Impulse”, a centre of industrial system technologies, has humble origins. It was founded in the 1960s, at the modest Lisichansk branch of the Moscow Special Design Bureau, which was originally intended for Lisichansk Chemical Plant’s computer automation. This powerful organization supported the development and creation of thousands of control systems in the USSR during 1960s-1980s. Among major contributions were the development of the Information-Management System (IMS) “Avtodispetcher” used in ammonium and ethanol production; “Sirena”, the first mass ticket booking system in the USSR, (used by the Aeroflot airlines); the electronic refereeing system for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and many more.


Andrei A. Novokhatny

The creation of control computers and technologies in the USSR originated out of necessity. The country’s gargantuan chemical industry required the manufacturing process to be automated. This led to the merging of three organizations: the Moscow Design Bureau (specifically the Special Design Bureau 245 branch) of the Scientific Research Institute (SRI) of Control Computers; the Lisichansk Chemical Plant (the world’s biggest at the time); and the Severodonetsk Instrument-making Plant. Initially, this formation was called the Scientific Research Institute of Control Computers (Russian: NII UVM), but was later renamed the Scientific Production Association (SPA) “Impulse”.

The two people who played an outstanding role in the establishment and development of SPA “Impulse” were the director of the Lisichansk branch, Andrey Aleksandrovich Novokhatniy, and his assistant and head of research Vladislav Vasilievich Rezanov.

From the outset, their principal R&D strategy was based on the idea of creating control computers and technologies that were universally applicable and suitable for mass production. This resulted in the creation of, under Rezanov’s leadership, the concept of a universal, full-range module system. This concept envisioned hardware and software configuration for layered control systems in order to control industrial processes regardless of complexity or application.

This also included computer-process interface, which allowed for reading process data, transferring it for further processing by a computer, and then sending signals for actuator control. This approach persisted for over 30 years and fully lived up to all expectations. It has facilitated the creation of a full range of system technologies,for example, the means for building a variety of IMS for any manufacturing or energy generation processes.

The small group of leading specialists from “Impulse” managed to gather and unite a team of thousands of like-minded workers. All were inspired by the single idea of creating and perfecting computer automation technologies for manufacturing and energy generation industrial processes (including demanding and complex tasks such as controlling nuclear power plants).

In the 1950s, computer technologies were somewhat of a rare luxury; individual machines existed in secret laboratories, each built from ground up. “Ural-1”, the first computer serialized in the USSR was in the early days of production in Penza. There was little to no information about the international experience in computer-based automation of manufacturing processes. The basic concepts of programmable control were still in early stages of development; industrial automation devices were based on analog computing, which used electromechanic and pneumatic devices. Of course, none of the standard industrial sensors for physical and chemical processes or standard actuators existed at the time either. Thus, the first set of questions the team asked were: what to automate, why, and by what technical means.

Lisichansk Chemical Plant’s primary products were ammonium and nitric acid. The specialists from Severodonetsk began familiarizing themselves with the process beginning with the basic processes of ammonium manufacturing. The first thing they created was the tentative control algorithm, which allowed the team to define base parameters of the future control machine. The idea of a tube-based computer was dropped almost immediately due to unreliable specifications of the hardware components, while semiconductors were not widely available or used yet. The saviour of the project was the three-phase ferrite-diode cell system, created by Professor L.I. Gutenmakher’s laboratory at the All-Soviet SRI of Technical Information (Moscow). The Penza branch of the Moscow Design Bureau adopted this technology, improving and adapting it for use in their project.

Trial operation of the first IMS, which was named “Avtodispetcher” (English: Automatic Supervisor) commenced in 1965. In 1967 it began day-and-night service, and worked successfully for over 24 years. The system controlled ammonium and ethanol production processes, was able to offer logic analysis for manufacturing process malfunctions, and kept an automatic account of the raw materials flow and a general technical-and-economic index for every separate production unit as well as the plant as a whole. The computer-process interface of “Avtodispetcher” was presented as a combined remote-control subsystem, which was able to measure 360 instantaneous parameter values, 120 integral parameter values, 360 polar signals with a cycle of 20 seconds, and 200 instantaneous polar signals.

The computing segment of “Avtodispetcher” was based on ferrite-diode logical components, including a ferrite memory storage device with a capacity of 1860 twenty-bit numbers, and a ferrite passive memory storage device with a 5632 twenty-bit numbers capacity. The arithmetic unit operated using 18-bit numbers with a fixed decimal point. The command system was single-address, and could perform 28 operations. During that period, the work was performed according to a fixed program written using machine instructions.

Simultaneously with the creation of “Avtodispetcher”, SPA “Impulse” was developing the control machine “Avtooperator” (English: Automatic Manipulator) for the so-called Direct Digital Control (DDC). This was the first device in Ukraine and the USSR that allowed for DDC, - where one machine controls a whole range of processes through actuators.

The creation of a three-level facilities system for on-line control of complex production processes (SOU-1) was the next stage of production automation at the Lisichansk Plant. SOU-1 was also designed as a serializable system. Both its structure and configuration were ahead of their time as the system included 3 separate machines.

The first one, the machine for primary information processing (Russian: MPPI), performed the collection, normalization and primary processing, and it registered and provided a readout of instantaneous and calculated parameter values and trends to the operational staff. Essentially, this was the first ever industrial control computer in the modern sense of the word.

The second level of control was handled by the UM-1 machine. It consisted of several modular computer-process interface devices, adjusted for I/O of standard signals used by the State system of industrial automation equipment (SSE). The computing segment of the UM-1 machine was based of ferrite-diode cells, and had ferrite modular RAM and ROM (with a capacity for 1024 words x 4 and 2048 words x 3 respectively). UM-1 could perform 30 arithmetic and logical operations on 21-bit binary numbers, with a fixed decimal point reaching speeds of900 operations per second. The interrupt system was a distinguishing feature of this machine; it allowed for processing of 16 distinct independent programs with automatic prioritizing according to programmed specifications. Control Machine UM-1 was one of the first industrial multi-program machines in the world. Thanks to this feature, the designers were able to create software not only to deal with functional tasks, but also to provide comfortable interaction between the machine and its operator, in-line diagnostic routines for debugging,and so forth. It also allowed the designers to include an operator’s console in the machine, which allowed for control and management of the work processes. UM-1 could be connected to MPPI-type machines or work independently.

The coordinating computer KVM-1 (Coordinating Computing Machine) had very high technical specifications for its time. It was conceived as a machine that would interact with up to 65 requestors of UM-1 and MPPI-1 type at a distance of up to 12 kilometers, connected to KVM-1 through radial communication ducts, all in real time. This was a significant step forward in creating network structure for control computers at complex production facilities. In case of computing power-intensive tasks, KVM-1 could also use its own computer-process interface.

The KVM-1 computing system was able to undertake up to 256 distinct tasks, and process them at the speed of 100,000 operations per second. The multi-program system, which could react to 80 asynchronous requests simultaneously, allowed the designers to create a real-time operating system for the machine. The software included powerful diagnostic tools. The machine was also fitted with an operator control panel with dichromatic print, which allowed the operator to control the machine’s processes in interactive mode. From a technical perspective, the KVM-1 was innovative because it included a new set of logical elements built on tunnel diodes and transistors developed especially for the machine, which ensured its high productivity.

The creation of KVM-1 coincided with the emergence of information about the IBM 360 system, and the creation of the “Dnepr-2” machine at the Ukranian SSR Academy of Science's.Institute of Cybernetics. Due to this, KVM-1 never received much attention. However, the primary reason its development was halted was because industrial plants were not yet ready to utilize such powerful control computers.

Overall, the SOU-1 system was ahead of its time. Severodonetsk Instrument-making Plant produced several hundred of MPPI-1 and UM-1 type machines, which were used in control systems at various plants and operated successfully for 20 years.

Later on, SRI of Control Computers began work on a third-generation hardware system, whose structure was analogical to that of SOU-1. The designers also incorporated the basic instructions system and peripheral interface designs of the IBM 360 system. The designers understood the limitations of the Soviet microelectronics, and so decided to pursue two lines of development. The first line was implemented using the second-generation technological base and included three computing system models: M1000, M2000, and M3000. The second line included the more perfected M6000 and M4030 systems. According to the original plan, the first line of computers was treated as the aggregate system of computing technologies (Russian: ASVT) and part of the then-forming State system of industrial automation equipment, which was intended primarily for control tasks in agriculture and industry.

In the 1970s the SRI of Control Computers (the future SPA “Impulse”) was assigned as the leading organization for creation and production of ASVT. This coincided with the decision to create a ticket booking system at the Moscow air hub of Aeroflot. This is why the first practical application for M2000 and M3000 systems was for a booking system of Aeroflot airlines called “Sirena” (English: Siren), not the intended industrial plants.

This was the first global mass customer service system in the USSR; it included hundreds of terminal stations (cashier working places) all around the Soviet Union connected to the main booking center in Moscow. System developers ran into a number of difficult issues, including modest computing power, communication line interference, the somewhat outdated second-generation transistor hardware components, and the vague requirements to final system specifications. At the same time, the task was monumental: to create and put into operation a monster of a machine with more than 1000 hardware stands while working on a tight schedule, and at the same time guaranteeing its high reliability.

Despite all of these challenges, the “Sirena” system was completed successfully; it included the computing system for the Moscow booking center, terminal communication systems (using digital data transfer lines, which were underdeveloped at the time), large-capacity archive RAM which could guarantee data retention in emergency modes, and interactive user I/O system (for example cashier terminal panels for ticket search and request, individual help request and display output. Additionally, the system boasted a custom operating system, designed especially for reliable performance according to the needs of the clients and Aeroflot as a whole.

Dedicated dial-up telephone and telegraph lines connected to the city’s automated telephone systemserved as primary communication lines. All the communication channels connected to the lines through a specially developed hardware system for data transfer. The success of “Sirena” further improved the reputation of SPA “Impulse”.

Impulse’s” next project was the creation of the mini-computer “Parameter”. When the designers came across the listing of one of the operating system versions for the Hewlett-Packard mini-computer HP2116, they decided on the final design architecture for “Parameter”. It did not, however, become a carbon copy of the American computer. The designers only adopted the same basic processor instruction system as well as the structure of the operating system. They knew that any attempt at duplicating a foreign product without open cooperation was a dead end in development. Therefore, they designed the system using exclusively Soviet-made hardware components. They also came up with a new standard for the processor-to-peripherals communication interface, which aimed to solve the problem of computer-process interface complexation as well as to provide the possibility of connecting to other external devices.

After “Parameter”, they worked on the M6000 computer, and also defined the branch’s system and technological standards, which allowed for simultaneous design and production of computers. The designers came up with standard designs for the architecture of modular control systems, which became a department-wide designer standard. It is during this time that the idea to create a modular system for software first appeared. The scientists of “Impulse” decided to create a software environment that could control resources of a distributed system for information collection and processing, andinteract with an operator monitoring the process. The present variety in system structural configuration meant that the software environment had to be modular, with powerful support systems – both in the complexation and the functioning processes. The core of such a system for M6000 models was created by the time national tests began, and later resulted in a powerful modular software system (Russian: ASPO).

As a result, “Impulse” developed a modular hardware and software system, which allowed the creation of a wide variety of systems for industrial control and information processing, ranging from simple to multi-machine systems, and even geographically dispersed software and hardware systems for process control. This received the collective name of M6000 ASVT-M.

The computing segment of M6000 had well-developed I/O and command systems, which allowed for easier programming; a convenient priority interrupt system, which made it possible to combine I/O tasks with calculation tasks. The machine also had high productivity for its time (up to 2,000,000 address operations and 1,800,000 no-address operations per second), and a memory build-up range of 8,192 to 65,736 bytes. It also could connect to fast direct memory access channels for performing I/O tasks without interrupting the processor, and also to incremental channels for histogram output. This computing segment was known for its high reliability and ease of maintenance.

Besides this, the scientists of SPA “Impulse” developed an electronic refereeing system for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, dubbed “Olimpiada-80”. At the same time, the computer-building industry developed and serialized alphanumeric displays SID-1000, as well as the station for graphical data processing SIGD.

In early 1980s, SPA “Impulse” designed high-performance geophysical systems PS2000, PS2100, and PS3000. For example, the PS2000 system, created in 1981, had a productivity of 200 million operations per second, and was built on a principle of “multiple data flows, one command flow”. It had up to 64 processing units, whose structure of interaction changed during the calculation process, depending on the algorithms of the specific geophysical task. In PS2100, the productivity increased to 1.5 billion operations per second. As a result, by the mid-1980s, “Impulse” had equipped a number of projects and plants with more than 150 PS2000 complexes. The development of the next geophysical complex PS3000, built on the principle of “multiple data flows, multiple command flows”, coincided with the cancelling of the remaining geophysical research in the country - the result of the upcoming USSR breakup, and was therefore never put into production. PS2100 suffered a similar fate.

By 1985, SPA “Impulse” and its branches employed around 12,000 scientists and workers. The number of systems using hardware developed by “Impulse” in manufacturing and energy generation plants passed the 10,000 mark. Around 1,000 design bureaus and SRIs partnered with “Impulse” for control system creation throughout its existence.

Impulse” was particularly unique because its founders managed to keep the team united for over 30 years of collaboration. The unchanging members of its “mighty core” were: the Director of “Impulse” A.A. Novokhatniy, Head of Research - V.V. Rezanov, Head of Systems Engineering department at the SRI of Control Computers - V.M. Kostelyanskiy, Deputy Head of SRI of Control Computers - V.M. Somkin, Head Designer and Head of Research for power supply systems - V.N. Deyneko, Head of Systems Programming Department of “Impulse” - V.G. Vinokurov, Designer of high-performance systems PS2000 and PS 2100 - I.I. Itenberg, Head of Business Department of “Impulse” - E.T. Belikov, Head Designer of “Avtooperator” - V.A. Barabanov, Head of Reliability Assurance Works - T.I. Limanskiy, and Developers L.A. Sopochkin, M.N. Obuvalin, G.V. Vshivtsev, V.I. Kot.

This is how a small and modest branch office of the Moscow SKB-245, tasked with automation of the Lisichansk Chemical Plant, grew into a powerful organization, able to provide thousands of control computer systems with its cutting-edge hardware all throughout 1960s-1980s.

Today, SPA “Impulse” continues its operation. Its primary directions of work are the development, production and implementation of monitoring and control systems (Russian: SKU) for atomic and thermal energy plants, oil and gas industry, railroads and so on. Over 20,000 control systems have been built based on “Impulse’s” designs, and are successfully implemented around the world, including the CIS countries, Bulgaria, Hungary, India, China, Finland, and Japan.