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MIPS Open-Source Group Takes Aim at ARM, Intel

Eweek, May 23 –

MIPS open source

Vendors like MIPS owner Imagination, Broadcom and Qualcomm are looking to drive MIPS adoption with the Prpl Foundation.

Imagination Technologies is taking the open-source route in hopes of driving wider adoption of its low-power MIPS processor architecture in everything from small devices that are part of the Internet of things to servers and networking gear that run in data centers.

Imagination and several other vendors—including Broadcom, Qualcomm, Cavium and PMC—have created an open-source consortium that is designed to draw in developers who want to make software that can run on a range of systems powered by MIPS processors.

The companies announced the Prpl (pronounced “Purple”) Foundation May 22 to rapidly grow the reach of the MIPS architecture and make it more competitive against more dominant platforms like ARM and Intel’s x86 chips. It also will find competition from the OpenPower Foundation, IBM’s effort to open up the Power architecture to bring it into more system and devices.

“For Imagination, this is an important new initiative in the further development of the MIPS ecosystem,” Imagination CEO Hossein Yassaie said in a statement. “With more than 3 billion units shipped, MIPS is one of the world’s leading CPU architectures.”

There was a time when MIPS was among the leading RISC processor architectures, running in systems from the likes of Silicon Graphics (SGI) and communications products from Cisco Systems and others, Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64, told eWEEK. However, it struggled over the past few years as its ownership changed, going from independent to being under SGI’s control and then back to being independent.

“A lot of potential users of MIPS were reluctant to invest in MIPS because they were not sure about its future,” Brookwood said.

That’s changed since Imagination bought MIPS for $100 million early last year, he said. Imagination has been open about its aggressive road map for the architecture, which is giving users more confidence. During a conference last year, Yassaie said the company was preparing to take on Intel and ARM in the low-power microserver market, with plans to release a CPU this year, though he admitted it could take several years before the company gained traction in the data center.

According to Imagination officials, the data center is one of several market segments the Prpl Foundation will focus on, with others including networking, digital home and the embedded and Internet of things (IoT) spaces. The foundation will serve as a resource depot that developers can leverage to create applications and devices for both the business-to-consumer and business-to-business markets.

The foundation will be a repository for a range of open-source projects based on the MIPS architecture and for everything from tool chains and libraries to debuggers and software.

Consortium members will work within specific engineering groups based on their particular expertise. For example, Qualcomm will work on networking projects, such as helping to create a community around carrier-grade OpenWrt. Qualcomm’s Atheros business already uses OpenWrt in its wireless routers.
Imagination is looking to grow MIPS in an increasingly competitive processor market. Intel and ARM are both looking to gain greater traction in the other’s strongholds. Intel continues to improve the performance and drive down the power consumption of its Atom platform as it looks to get a stronger foothold in the mobile arena, particularly in smartphones and tablets.
For its part, ARM sees an opportunity to get its low-power chip designs into the data center. ARM already has a number of high-profile partners in this effort, from Advanced Micro Devices on the chip side to Hewlett-Packard and Dell on the systems side.
And everyone is eyeing the burgeoning IoT space, which IDC analysts believe could hit $7.3 trillion by 2017.

Insight 64’s Brookwood said Imagination officials “have a chance [to succeed]. It’s not a done deal.”

However, creating the Prpl Foundation was another smart move in a world that is becoming even more open source, he said. Linux grew up in the x86 environment, so Intel and AMD have an edge there. The Linaro Group is working to build out the ecosystem around ARM’s architecture in the data center, while IBM is looking to OpenPower for help.

Imagination is taking a different approach than Linaro, which is essentially focused on Linux and the data center, Brookwood said. With Prpl, Imagination is opening the architecture to a range of platforms, from Google’s Android and WebOS to Tizen and the various flavors of Linux, including Red Hat and Ubuntu. That range will be important, he said.

“No one knows what’s going to happen with the Internet of things,” Brookwood said. “No one knows what OSes are going to be important. … Prpl is broader.
“The data center will represent a particular challenge to Imagination, where Intel is king and ARM and its various partners are making a concerted effort, he said. Imagination will have to find server makers who will want to take the time and effort needed to incorporate the MIPS architecture into their systems at a time when they already have Intel and ARM to choose from, he said.”It will be an uphill climb for them,” Brookwood said. “Now there’s a lot of push from ARM in the data center. But Intel’s dominance in the data center will be hard for anyone to shake.”