MIPS quietly bares its processor architecture to universities

Company hopes to use smart young brains to beat off ARM

MIPS Creator CI20 development board
Silicon: A MIPS Creator CI20 development board

The MIPS processor architecture behind many graphics cards and the PlayStation 2 is being laid bare by its licensee Imagination Technologies.

While ARM and Intel dominate the chip market, the MIPS third option is still a significant player in the industry – but what goes on inside processors is a closely guarded secret. Imagination isn’t lifting the lid to everyone, but is concentrating on educating universities. It explained:

For the first time in the history of modern processors, a CPU architecture will be opened up to universities: Imagination is releasing a fully open MIPS CPU to academic institutions worldwide for free. University professors, students, researchers and others members of the academic community will be able to see the actual RTL and study the inner workings of this elegant RISC processor – this will lead to a new wave of innovation in fields like IoT, mobile, automotive and many others.

While in its blog, MIPS’ Robert Owen – the manager of Imagination's University Programme – painted the move as being philanthropic, there is clearly a good payback for the company in educating the chip designers of tomorrow.

Former rival and co-founder and CTO of ARC, Rick Clucas, told El Reg: “It will potentially give MIPS something to beat ARM with”.

He said that for most university students, the payback was too long to design and implement a processor from scratch. They might have great commercial ideas but it takes five to six years to get a project running, by which time they're no longer students. Building on MIPS reduces the time-to-market. He said that when working in industry, “which processor to use is often a knife-edge decision and can be made on emotion”. Educating students on the inner workings of the MIPS processors could tip the balance when they move into industry.

Clucas, now head of product innovation at 4k video compression tech company V-Nova, said that Imagination isn’t giving away its crown jewels: “No-one will make a MIPS chip from the RTL on a commercial basis without being sued.”

Indeed, as part of the release of the RTL, Imagination told The Register that it required anyone making changes to get in touch with them to ensure backward compatibility with tools. It is also only releasing the code for use on FPGAs. The RTL will run on Altera and Xilinx systems initially, although Imagination welcomed approaches from others.

While the expectation is that students will use the RTL to work on low-level design adaptations, the processor Imagination is releasing is the microAptiv Processor Core, which includes an MMU and so could run flavours of Linux. This will not be available initially, but Imagination said it is imminent. It’s also theoretically possible to run Android, but that’s not being worked on, as Imagination said universities were more interested in Linux. ®


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