Introduction

One of ARM’s most tangible business advantages is its offer of both CPUs and GPUs to SoC designers. Anyone with experience in business to business relationships knows just how complex forming and maintaining a mutually beneficial collaboration can be. Setting up contracts, forming rapport, defining goals, and even just understanding documentation and technical content formatting all takes time. Unless there is significant benefit to investing in two different relationships and technologies, it is simpler (read: cheaper) to single source contributing components of a design. There are down sides of single sourcing (see Boeing 787 battery fiasco), but depending on a business’ capacity for risk, the savings are undeniable. Especially when ARM undoubtedly offers bundle pricing promotions.

When Imagination Technologies acquired MIPS Technologies in 2012 for $100 million, their goal was very clear – attack ARM. Imagination’s GPU business was already wildly successful, with design wins in a bevy of high end mobile devices including those from Samsung and Apple. Adding the CPU cores from MIPS, with their decades of history designing and licensing IP, strategically positioned Imagination opposite ARM’s licensing business. Imagination’s executives have also stated they are prepared to offer aggressive IP bundling discounts.

Looking at Imagination’s product, press, demos, and interviews, it appears they are not (yet?) positioning MIPS cores to combat ARM cores at the high end of the market. Rather, they appear focused on being a viable alternative to ARM in multi-threaded and low power workloads. In fact, the vast majority of MIPS cores are currently used in network infrastructure where threading and power efficiency are paramount.

Today MIPS is announcing a major launch: the Warrior I6400 core. Based on the 64-bit MIPS64 instruction set (release 6), the Warrior I6400 core is the middle-class CPU core in a family of three, each targeting a different point in the power/performance curve. Imagination is releasing the I6400 core last, which is at the middle of the pack balancing performance with power. Imagination has already released their high-end P56xx series and low-end M51xx series.

The most analogous ARM core to the I6400 appears to be the ARM Cortex-A53, but I6400 has some interesting features we haven’t seen in this market before and MIPS estimates it will deliver higher performance. I’ve produced a table here to help put performance in context. Note that only A57, A53, P5600, and I6400 are 64-bit processors.

MIPS and ARM High End IP Cores in Order of Performance
MIPS Manufacturer
Estimated
DMIPS/MHz/core
ARM
  5.0 Cortex-A57
  4.0 Cortex-A17
Cortex-A15
P5600 3.5  
I6400 3.0  
  2.5 Cortex-A9
  2.3 Cortex-A53
  1.9 Cortex-A7

Keep in mind that these processors use different instruction sets (ISAs) so DMIPS are not directly comparable. However, as they are both RISC processors, the DMIPS should hopefully be roughly comparable. I would like to use directly comparable CoreMark scores but only MIPS provides CoreMark numbers for their processors.

While no one can accurately predict if Imagination will grab additional market share away from ARM, we can educate ourselves on this alternative before it potentially arrives in our hands and homes. And besides, competition is always a good thing.

MIPS ISA & Mobile Devices
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  • OreoCookie - Thursday, September 04, 2014 - link

    Just a small correction: also Oracle's/Sun's UltraSparc T-series supports SMT. From the T2 on Oracle has implemented 8-way SMT while the original T1 »only« had 4-way SMT. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, September 04, 2014 - link

    The inclusion of SMT should be especially helpful for in-order designs. Which is probably why they can claim such a huge performance increase. And to make the number of threads configurable is an interesting design choice. This way "users" (licensees) can balance throughput and latency for the intended application. Reply
  • narmermenes - Friday, September 05, 2014 - link

    I'm excited the Imagination is being aggressive with their acquisition of MIPS. The platform is a great alternative to ARM, and in many way superior to the ARM architecture.
    While ARM is just starting to offer a 64 bit variant, MIPS has offered a 64 bit version for the last 10-12 years.
    Thousands of server designs have already been performed for MIPS and there already exists a mountain of server and enterprise software for the 64 bit version.
    Now with the Open-MIPS program running full steam, MIPS can really be the next big thing in Open Hardware allowing fully open systems based on Open-MIPS hardware running Open Operating system in Linux.
    Reply
  • fteoath64 - Monday, September 08, 2014 - link

    Great discussion guys!. Thanks and welcome back MIPS!. Almost like an old "ghost" re-appearing on the scene with a vengeance this time. I see MIPS as targeting the server market being the lucrative one since only Intel is the surviving player and Intel has no RISC to play!. This server market can quickly come to the household where replacement for x86 aging PCs would be common as Linux takes hold and Android games goes into gamestream mode (a la Nvidia). Does anyone think MS would do a MIPS version of WIndows 9 just to get back at Intel ?. Don't think so. Hence, Open source is the only way to go s a home OS. It has everything people need and more.

    Note: Flashback and remember the MIPS NT server OS in the old days and how that died. I am sure the older MIPS people understand and remembered ....
    A MIPS server need to be twice as powerful as an equivalent x86 server and going for half the price to compete. They can with the current tech and some serious investment in software as well. Both OS development and apps. Focussing on the cloud and mobile clients, a market for private cloud is there for the taking. Storage vendors like WD and Seagate will be happy with more local storage that re-cycles their products every 3-4 years.
    Reply

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