The Re-Imagination of MIPS

Last week while standing with a former colleague at a tradeshow, he asked a simple and yet complicated question:

Whatever happened to MIPS, anyway?

I gave him the stock answer that they are still doing well in set-top boxes in Asia, they have a good Android solution, and they are still doing well in high-end network processors like Cavium. He asked the question if MIPS could ever break into mobile and be a threat to ARM, and my response was:

Intel is to AMD as ARM is to MIPS.

The market of 50B connected devices is a big market, however, and there is still room left for processor architectures as long as they are supported by software and IP-fab partners. Which leads us to the news …

Imagination Technologies, purveyors of the PowerVR family of graphics IP found in many mobile devices including Apple, has acquired MIPS operating assets in a somewhat complicated deal that sent the MIPS patent portfolio to Bridge Crossing. As it turns out, Bridge Crossing is a front for Allied Security Trust, composed of names you’ll recognize. I wanted to focus on a brief history of MIPS and what this acquisition could mean.

MIPS began life as one of the first merchant RISC processor architectures, years before ARM parts hit the merchant markets. The R2000 was one of the highest performing RISC platforms of its day – ironically, in a stable with the Intel i960 and the AMD 29k, both since disappeared from the landscape. The biggest hit was the selection of MIPS by Silicon Graphics for their workstation lines, which resulted in SGI acquiring MIPS outright.

As Sun and SPARC started gaining large chunks of the workstation market, MIPS was spun back out of SGI in 1998. With new-found independence, MIPS went in search of embedded applications and more diversified design wins. They found a big one: printing. The R3000 was a solid solution for multi-function printers running Adobe Postscript, and MIPS was off and running again. But, other architectures encroached on that space, with PowerPC at the high end (I actually had quite a bit to do with that), and less expensive architectures like Freescale’s ColdFire at the low end.

MIPS continued along the embedded path. They always enjoyed a following in academic circles since the instruction set could be licensed, and one of the more interesting developments was the Raytheon Monarch with research from the University of Southern California and others. The quest for a stable part in the defense community continues, and FPGA technology with processor cores seems to be winning.

As I mentioned, MIPS of late focused on set-top boxes running Android. By providing some architectural acceleration for the Myriad Dalvik Turbo VM, they have been able to build a solid solution for Android in non-handset applications. We know breaking the ARM stronghold on mobile is an uphill battle. MIPS also has significant presence in the network processor market – massively multicored chips designed to handle packets transmitted over the Internet.

Enter Imagination Technologies. They too are locked in a struggle with ARM, but of a different sort. PowerVR graphics is quite competitive to ARM graphics IP offerings, and Imagination makes quite a nice sum from each iPad and iPhone sold. However, go back to my quote: ARM’s strategy is much more about enveloping a competitor on multiple fronts, and the combination of a wider range of ARM processor IP cores and software support has taken a toll on MIPS. Without processor IP to compete, Imagination is looking to branch out.

Imagination does have the Meta core, however it is missing the primary ingredients of software and IP-fab support needed to succeed broadly. MIPS processors are on cutting edge 28nm technology and are backed by Android and other operating systems, where Meta was never viewed by anyone as a serious merchant part. The combination of world-class PowerVR graphics IP with advanced processor cores from MIPS forms a good synergy.

I do see a dim future for Vivante, another graphics IP provider which had teamed with MIPS on numerous design wins. Imagination will likely swoop in and pick up most of Vivante’s design wins tied to MIPS parts. This will leave most of the mobile graphics IP business to ARM, Imagination, and Qualcomm (which has their own).

MIPS was also trying to push lower into microcontroller space, particularly teamed with Microchip. It will be very interesting to see if and how that continues. Renesas recently announced their ARM-based MCU roadmap, and the pervasiveness of ARM in the world of 50B devices continues to grow.

This new Imagination-MIPS combination could be very interesting to watch, as the issues of hardware-software co-verification and software optimization for SoC design become larger and larger issues. What are your thoughts?

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