Dark History: Computing's Communist Clones

In the 1960s, IBM designed a large scale computer system architecture which would forever change the world of big business. This mainframe was called System/360 and it allowed for the type of real-time processing and computational power that enabled the kinds of online features we take for granted today, such as credit card authorisations, airline bookings, grocery scanning and so forth. System/360 also helped power the US space program, enabling NASA to put a man on the moon. And while IBM's mainframes, accessed with user-friendly terminal emulation software, remain a crucial part of big business today, what many don't realise is that the Soviet Union also created its own clones of System/360, known as ES EVM.

Soviet clones of Western computer systems.

The Soviet Union created a number of Computer systems which cloned or were based on Western designs.
("USSR Grunge Flag" by Nicolas Raymond is licensed under CC BY 3.0)

The effects of the Cold War on Russian mainframe development

When IBM created System/360, the U.S. and Soviet Union were embroiled in an ideological conflict now universally referred to as the Cold War. This war, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was not a conventional war. The Cold War never involved direct major military conflict between the two powers, mostly due to the mutually assured destruction that resulted from each others' nuclear proliferation.

Instead, the conflict between the capitalist U.S. and its western allies and the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies was fought on ideological grounds. It was forged by way of force deployments, espionage, the aforementioned nuclear arms races and, of course, the space race.

As already mentioned, the success of System/360 in the western world helped drive the success of big business and also enabled the U.S. to win the space race, with the mainframes being used by NASA. This success was something the Soviet Union could not afford to ignore, and in the early '70s, production of the ES EVM began in earnest. Most of the ES EVM software was based on slightly altered and localised IBM code, while most of the hardware was original and created through the process of reverse engineering. The ES EVM series was developed in the Soviet capital of Moscow, then in Yerevan and later in Minsk, Belarus, where its remnants can still be seen today.

How similar was the ES series?

The first subseries of the ES EVM included the 1010, 1020, 1030, 1040 and 1050, all of which were quite similar to System/360, which these days must be accessed with a 3270 emulator. The second subseries, which was released in the late '70s, included the 1015, 1025, 1035, 1045, 1055 and 1060, and these were quite similar to IBM's System/380. As time went on, however, the similarities with IBM's machines lessened, and future subseries were not directly analogous with IBM's mainframes. However, by the late '90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, production of ES mainframes ended entirely.

Other clones

Aside from the ES series, which cloned IBM mainframes, there were other Russian clones as well. The SM EVM, for example, which began production in 1975, were direct clones of Hewlett-Packard (HP) minicomputers, while the DVK is a clone of the PDP-11 series of 16-bit minicomputers developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).