NEW YORK – MIPS Technologies rolled out this week a new generation of microprocessor cores called Aptiv.
With the new cores’ smaller die size and reduced energy consumption compared to ARM’s midrange core like A15, MIPS is hoping that the new family of cores can put the company back on track. “We will gain leadership again” on the competitive microprocessor IP market, according to Gideon Intrater, vice president of marketing at MIPS. “We believe that Aptiv can beat A15 by a large margin.”
MIPS is at a crossroads, however. Some analysts see Aptiv arriving in the market a little too late.
Indeed, until this week, MIPS had not introduced new cores for two years. Meanwhile, its rival ARM busily pumped out a series of new microprocessor cores.
Why did MIPS, once a technology leader, fall behind? One explanation is MIPS’s acquisition of ChipIdea, an analog and mixed-signal IP supplier, in 2007. This deal apparently posed a huge distraction. MIPS’ plan then was to offer its customers a ‘virtual SoC’ by creating a strong IP arsenal – going beyond microprocessor cores – to mount a challenge to ARM. The marriage ended, however, after 18 months. “Once we decided to sell ChipIdea in 2009, we were able to put an emphasis back on microprocessor core development,” said Intrater.
MIPS is also facing an even bigger upheaval: the company’s potential sale. Recent speculation that “MIPS is up for sale” has not died down, and MIPS has neither confirmed nor denied the reports. Gary Mobley, senior research analyst at The Benchmark Company, calls the sale “a distinct possibility,” as MIPS has been shopped around at various times in the past 10 years. But he added: “It is important to note that if the company intends to sell, it better do so soon before potential licensees grow more concerned regarding MIPS’ long-term processor roadmap.”
Against this backdrop, MIPS is betting on Aptiv to turn things around. The Aptiv family, consisting of high-performance proAptiv, multi-threaded interAptiv and highly-efficient microAptiv, is the fruit of the company’s substantial investment and development efforts over the last three years. While the Aptiv family addresses distinct performance levels for applications across mobile, home entertainment, networking and embedded, MIPS’s focus is squarely on mobile.
“We see the mobile market the most important, because of sheer size,” said Intrater. “Even if we get a small share, it makes a big difference.”
But then, the $64,000 question is: If you are already an ARM licensee (most likely you are, if you are in the mobile market), why even consider licensing MIPS now?
MIPS’ Intrater said, “Companies are upgrading their cores all the time. We think that our Aptiv can give them compelling reasons to switch to MIPS core.”
EE Times asked a few industry analysts for their opinions.
1. Need to keep the competition healthy
J. Scott Gardner, a senior analyst at The Linley Group explained: “SoC developers need healthy competition among the suppliers of licensable CPU cores. MIPS is the most viable alternative to ARM for most of these applications.
“Even though ARM has grown much larger than MIPS, the ARM licensees will undoubtedly give some consideration to MIPS Aptiv as a way to differentiate products and perhaps gain negotiating leverage with ARM.”
Jon Peddie, President of Jon Peddie Research, said, “You need to have a second source.” But he added: “It depends on the platform. Mobile phones will be a tough sell, tablets are better, Game consoles, STBs, industrial controls, routers, automotive, etc. are opportunities for MIPS.”
2. It’s all about power efficiency and cost
Based on published EEMBC CoreMark performance estimates, the Aptiv family “should deliver better performance per MHz than any of the cores currently offered by ARM,” according to Gardner. “The ProAptiv has 50% higher CoreMark/MHz than Cortext-A9, and Microprocessor Report expects that ProAptiv will have significantly-higher CoreMark/MHz scores than Cortex-A15. The higher IPC should allow operation at a lower frequency and power than competing ARM cores. For many of these applications, power efficiency and cost have become the primary differentiators.”
In other words, “When compared to systems based on Cortex-A15, an SoC designer using MIPS Aptiv should be able to integrate almost twice as many CPU cores into the same silicon area and power budget,” Gardner explained.
3. Heritage and range
In Peddie’s mind, MIPS’ “powerful instruction set with a heritage going back to the first 64-bit workstations and servers” should still be one of the big reasons to consider MIPS even today. Further, “MIPS is the only 128-bit processor – Sony’s Emotion engine in the PS2,” he said. MIPS also offers “a good range of products with flexibility from 8-bit to 64 bit,” Peddie added.
4. China factor
Not to be missed in considering MIPS is perhaps MIPS cores’ impact in China. Peddie noted that “Chinese home grown Loongson processor is based on MIPS, and if you think having instruction-set compatibility with it is important (and I do) then it’s a slam dunk no brainer.”