MIPS forms open source initiative

Processor IP provider creates Prpl to encourage open software ecosystem and keep its challenge to ARM alive

By Caroline Gabriel

There's a believable scenario in which Intel x86 and ARM are the only processor architectures left by the end of the decade, in mainstream markets from cloud servers to mobile devices to the internet of things. But other contenders, like Power and MIPS, are determined not to go down without a fight. Both have set up open source foundations to ensure they are competitive in terms of software and support, and to reassure supporters that they still have convincing ecosystems and roadmaps.

IBM created the OpenPower consortium last August, putting a great deal of its hardware and software into the open environment and signing up supporters including Google, Nvidia and Mellanox. Its main target is the emerging breed of low power servers for the cloud.

Now MIPs, owned by GPU specialist Imagination Technologies, has its own foundation, called Prpl. Initial members, aside from Imagination itself, include many of the names you'd want to give an architecture credibility - Qualcomm, Broadcom and Cavium (major ARM users all) plus Ikanos, Lantiq, PMC-Sierra and some smaller licensees. The aim is to build software that runs on MIPS to ensure a solid continuing base for its instruction set.

Prpl is the brainchild of Amit Rohatgi, who joined MIPS from Qualcomm in 2011 as principal architect and was responsible for bringing Android to the MIPS platform. "We will work on everything from the data center to the internet of things," he told EETimes. "Every company does a lot of open source work behind the firewall; prpl aims to move out the firewall."

The platform's heartlands are in broadband equipment, set-top boxes and some industrial gear, and Broadcom is a particularly important customer. However, ARM has been challenging in the set-top and networking spaces, and is also looming wherever MIPS seeks new markets. The latter's smartphone efforts failed, bar slots in a few low cost tablets, and now it has its eyes, like everyone else, on low power servers and the internet of things (IoT).

Like ARM's own Linaro effort, Prpl hopes to establish a significant software base, because its members are pooling their efforts, and because it will offer standard implementations of MIPS code. This should make it less risky for companies to use the platform. Among the items in focus are Linux distributions for data centers; and real time OSs for embedded systems. Prpl will also work on secure OS, hypervisors and Java developer kits. Among other elements, Imagination will contribute its ARM-to-MIPS binary translation software as open source code.

The first work item will be to create a standard version of OpenWRT for home gateways and routers and this shows Imagination's wider ambitions for Prpl - to help establish it as a mover and shaker in industry standards for the next wave of the internet, even beyond its own architectures. OpenWRT will be one reason for Qualcomm's interest - its Atheros unit already uses it in its WiFi router chips, to encourage a third party apps ecosystem. Dan Rabinovitsj, SVP of Atheros, said the hope of a more standard stack and a broader developer community was Qualcomm's motivation to join Prpl.

This shows how Imagination hopes to build influence beyond the user base for MIPS processors. It insists that any firm can join Prpl, including backers of x86 and ARM, which Rohatgi claims makes the foundation more open than Linaro.

A surprising omission from the initial line-up is Oracle, which recently announced a partnership with Imagination to optimize Java technologies, including the embedded version and the developer kit, for the UK firm's PowerVR and MIPS cores.

Comcast, the US's largest broadband provider, attended the Prpl launch and its chief software architect, Sree Kotay, told EETimes he was interested in an ecosystem focused on security and connectivity. Comcast is increasingly using open source code, he said, because it could not "afford to buy our way out, nor could we build all we needed".

Prpl is to some extent about keeping existing customers loyal by making it easier for them to bring open source software to their products. But Imagination is looking to new areas too, and aims to harness optimized support for Android, Java and other open software to help. The next major product will be new 64-bit MIPS cores supporting 64-bit Android - an area where Intel has so far led the race. Imagination CEO Hossein Yassaie says the firm is now shipping about 800m MIPS cores a year and has signed almost 70 new licensees since it bought the firm.

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