MIPS’ Rising Stature Challenging RISC-V?

Article By : Junko Yoshida

MIPS will become a bona fide open-source ISA and its advantages over competitors are many.

When Wave Computing acquired MIPS, “going open source” was the plan Wave’s CEO Derek Meyer had in mind. But Meyer, a long-time MIPS veteran, couldn’t casually mention his plan then. Wave was hardly ready with the solid infrastructure it needed to support a legion of hardware developers interested in coming to the MIPS open-source community.

To say “go open source” is easy. Pulling it off has meant a huge shift from MIPS, long accustomed to the traditional IP licensing business.

Wave’s first step was hiring Art Swift as president of its MIPS licensing business. Swift fit the bill as someone who knows the best of both worlds — old (traditional IP for licensing) and new (open source). Swift had served as vice-chair of the RISC-V Foundation’s Marketing Committee and was vice president of marketing and business development at MIPS Technologies from 2008 to 2011.

Wave’s second step was to pull the trigger on the announcement last December that MIPS was going open source. Wave promised that MIPS Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) and MIPS’ latest core would be available in the first quarter of 2019. But the company did not disclose details then.

When EE Times caught up with Swift last week, he confirmed that the plan is on track. “We are getting all the deliverables ready,” he said.

By “deliverables,” he means key elements such as database, RTL, open-source tool chains and design flow. “Documentation is critical,” he explained, because hundreds of potential customers should have configuration options that are easy to use.

Swift noted that MIPS plans to soon announce details on cores to be provided to the open source community.

Certainly, MIPS will become a bona fide open-source ISA. But given that MIPS will offer, from day one, “commercial-ready” instruction sets with “industrial-strength” architecture, Swift believes that the kinds of hardware developers MIPS would attract are bigger and more mature companies. MIPS’ target customers will include Arm licensees looking for alternatives.

MIPS’ advantages over competitors are many. Its instruction sets already have extensions such as SIMD (single instruction, multiple data) and DSP. Both ISA and cores are proven. “Chip designers will be able to design their own cores based on proven and well tested instruction sets for any purposes,” said Swift.

No sue arrangement

Another thing MIPS uniquely offers is “patent protection,” Swift said.

MIPS open-architecture users can leverage MIPS’ existing patents — as many 300 — free of charge. Since MIPS licensees have agreed to “no-sue arrangements” that prevent them from suing one another, newcomers to MIPS Open are lawsuit-proof, explained Swift.

In its efforts to prevent fragmentation, MIPS will open regional certificate centers, said Swift. The goal is to make sure that implementations are compliant with MIPS and MIPS capabilities, while offering MIPS trademark and patent protection, he added.

‘Structured way’

As Swift explained, MIPS Open Initiative by no means represents MIPS “free for all.” MIPS ISA and specific cores will be available in the open-source community, and MIPS will allow user-defined instruction sets. But MIPS hopes to proceed in “a structured way,” according to Swift. “This approach may be appealing to some companies but not necessarily to others.”

In other words, those who prefer “staying within the rule” may like what MIPS is doing. Others who want to change everything might not prefer MIPS.

Swift added, “The 30+ year legacy of MIPS architecture should mean something. It’s a value.”

But here's a question: How then does Wave plan to make money on MIPS? Wave styles itself as a tech startup poised to bring “AI and deep learning from the datacenter to the edge.” MIPS is a key to accelerating Wave's AI into the market, as the startup hopes to make money on “MIPS + AI” strategy. Wave, however, has not disclosed yet what this MIPS + AI entails.

Swift emphasized his high respect for what the RISC-V Foundation has accomplished. The group quickly and accurately grasped that the appetite for open-source hardware is a tide that nobody could stop. “Many want to use the open-source hardware as a platform of innovation,” Swift observed.

Swift talked about two lessons learned while working for the RISC-V Foundation. For the open source community to succeed, “you need a large, strong body of developers. You also need big players supporting the community.” RISC-V has gotten both, and that’s what MIPS hopes to emulate.

Indicating a slight divergence between RISC-V and MIPS in their approach for the open-source community, Swift stressed, “We believe there is room for both.”

Meanwhile, Swift said MIPS is committed to increasing its number of customers by lowering barriers to entry. For example, MIPS will revive and promote what is known as MIPSfpga program. The academic-focused program was originally developed to be taught in classes, with a comprehensive set of materials for a MIPS CPU that presents to students the actual RTL code and inner workings of the processor.

“We are opening the MIPSfgpa to practically everyone,” said Swift, “since we want everyone to experiment with its softcore.” While the MIPSfpga lets developers work with the core at system level, it also allows them to modify the core itself and to explore and alter the memory system, for example.

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