MIPS Returns to Silicon Valley, Eyes Burgeoning AI Market

After Imagination Technologies bought MIPS Technologies in 2013, they invested in the architecture and attempted to build a business around it as a potential ARM competitor. These plans largely failed, and Imagination Technologies arranged the sale of MIPS — and itself — to different venture capital firms in the fall of 2017. Now, the company has been brought back to Silicon Valley, where it hopes to build a new line of competitive processors for AI workloads.

Back in the 1990s, MIPS was the basis for a line of workstation hardware and devices like the PlayStation (R3000), Nintendo 64, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation 2. Even after the company’s hardware had vanished from high-end workstation systems, it held a hefty share of the embedded market, with myriad low-power processors built by a wide range of companies. After Imagination Technologies acquired the company they attempted to use it to compete with ARM, without much success. Now that the company has been picked up by Tallwood Venture Capital, it’s hoping to return to its roots and shift away from head-to-head competition with ARM.

Majid Bemanian, MIPS director of marketing, recently spoke with EETimes about the company’s transformation. Noting that engineers at the company felt they had lost their heritage at Imagination Technologies, there are fresh hopes that MIPS can deliver a better product today.

“We know MIPS has so much to offer in terms of real-time support, multithreaded architecture and virtualization, in addition to functional safety and security,” Bemanian said.

p6600-block-diagram

Under Imagination, MIPS put effort into its own high-end CPU cores like the P6600 above, but these chips won little market share.

It’s going to be an upward climb. MIPS has lost ground to ARM, and the latter has not stood still. ARM now offers a huge range of core licenses, with CPUs to address virtually every market segment. Newer ISAs, like RISC-V, are also open source and could compete with MIPS for market share at a time the company can ill afford the fight. MIPS has landed a few major customers, however, including MobilEye, MediaTek (MIPS CPUs are used in the company’s LTE modems), and Denso, a major Japanese automotive company.

According to Bemanian, MIPS strengths are in its multi-cache coherent architecture and highly efficient operations. “MIPS can be a part of inference engines or it can be used to manage accelerators around GPUs and FPGAs as well,” Bemanian told EETimes.

It can be. It remains to be seen if it will be. AI and the advent of deep neural networks, machine vision, and other new devices definitely opens up new markets for current and future players. But MIPS will have to scramble to catch up with the entrenched players, industry titans, and first-movers who have already leaped to catch the proverbial train. MIPS will have to show some compelling designs to win markets back from companies who’ve already jumped ship. MIPS has already won an HPC customer — the most energy-efficient supercomputer in the TOP500 uses an SoC developed by Pezy Computing. The Pezy-SC2 SoC (shown in our feature image) uses a MIPS P6600 cluster to manage its many-core architecture.