Imagination Aims at Intel, ARM with MIPS Chips
Imagination Technologies, armed with the MIPS chip technology it bought last year, reportedly is preparing to take on Intel and ARM in the burgeoning market for low-power server processors.
Speaking at a press conference the same week as the Hot Chips 2013 conference at Stanford University in California, Imagination CEO Hossein Yassaie said his company will have a CPU design for such systems on the market next year, according to reports. However, Yassaie admitted it could take several years before Imagination makes a dent in the highly competitive segment of the server space.
The move is part of a larger strategy to take the CPU technology gained through its $100 million acquisition of MIPS in 2012 and extend it into many areas of the industry, including smartphones, tablets and wearable devices, as well as low-power servers.
"We didn't acquire MIPS for the hell of it," Yassaie said, according to the news site VentureBeat. "$100 mil is a lot to spend on a company, and our aim is to cover all the markets for which the CPU is relevant."
Imagination—best known for its PowerVR graphics core technology that is found in a range of mobile systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) from the likes of Intel and Apple and in such devices as Google Glass—bought MIPS with the idea of becoming a more significant player in the mobile CPU space, which currently is dominated by ARM and its long list of partners, including Samsung, Qualcomm and Nvidia. It's also an area that Intel is aggressively pursuing with its low-power x86-based Atom chip portfolio.
Imagination will run into those same competitors in the low-power server market, which is aimed at hyperscale data center environments run by such organizations as Web hosting companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Such companies want to run huge numbers of small, highly energy-efficient servers in their massive data centers.
Intel is the dominant chip maker in the data center, but ARM officials for the past several years have eyed the low-power microserver space, and next year will release a 64-bit design for SoCs aimed at the market. Already some partners, including Calxeda and Marvell Technology, have developed 32-bit ARM-based chips, and Applied Micro is working on the second generation of its 64-bit ARM X-Gene SoC.
For its part, Intel is aiming its Atom platform at the microserver space as well. The company late last year rolled out the first generation of the SoC, dubbed Centerton. It now is preparing the next release, called "Avoton," which officials said will offer significant improvements in performance and power-efficiency.
Imagination's business model is similar to ARM's, which creates and licenses chip designs to partners, who then put in their own technologies and then build the chip.
The question will come down to whether there is room for the MIPS architecture in markets dominated by Intel and ARM. Imagination officials in June introduced the first of the MIPS-based CPUs under its guidance. The MIPS Series5 "Warrior" chips that will address all segments of the market—including servers, as well as smartphones and tablets—will come out next year.
Yassaie has argued that the market is looking for more options beyond Intel and ARM, and that MIPS will be a superior alternative. Like ARM, MIPS' architecture is based on RISC, and can support a range of open-source software, such as Linux. Imagination is getting more design wins in markets in which MIPS already was strong, including networking, home multimedia and the Internet of Things, but Yassaie is hoping that MIPS in the coming years will end up with as much as 25 percent of the CPU market.
However, given that it would take several years for systems powered by MIPS CPUs to be released, Imagination risks significantly trailing both Intel and ARM in the marketplace, particularly since major OEMs like Hewlett-Packard and Dell already are lining up their microserver efforts behind Intel and ARM.
Not everyone sees room for MIPS. In an interview with eWEEK, Applied Micro CEO Paramesh Gopi noted that Intel and ARM already own 90 percent of the ecosystem around servers.
"MIPS is dead," Gopi said. "There's no support for MIPS. … We do not see MIPS anywhere."