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Imagination to battle ARM with MIPS server chips

James Niccolai | Aug. 30, 2013
The chip design company wants to expand MIPS use in servers, smartphones and tablets.

Imagination had already made clear that it would use the MIPS acquisition to build CPUs for the tablet and smartphone markets. Yassaie's comments Wednesday show the company is serious about servers as well.

There's nothing about ARM that makes it intrinsically more suitable for servers than MIPS, said Paul Teich, senior analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy. Both are based on RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architectures that lend themselves to low-power designs.

The "magic" in ARM server chips from the likes of Calxeda doesn't come from the core itself but from the surrounding technologies, Teich said. Nor should software be a hurdle for MIPS, he said, since there are already MIPS versions of Linux, and it would be relatively easy to port other programs to the architecture.

Gartner analyst Mark Hung agreed that "from a technical standpoint," MIPS can be competitive with ARM in servers.

But ARM has a head start. Calxeda and Applied Micro have already developed ARM server chips that customers are testing. If the new MIPS cores don't appear until the end of next year, Imagination will be "on the tail end of being late," Teich said.

Yassaie acknowledged there's work to be done in both servers and smartphones. Initially, he expects to grow the MIPS business in markets where it's already prevalent, such as networking and home media equipment. Mobile may be the hardest market for Imagination to crack, he said, presumably because of ARM's dominance.

But the industry is ready for another CPU design company, according to Yassaie. Vendors don't want to be beholden to a single supplier, and he's quick to label ARM a "monopoly" for its dominance in mobile devices.

Several years ago, the PC was "the only ecosystem that existed," he said. "But now there are several ecosystems, with some pretty big players behind them, and it's completely untenable to expect those people to put up with such control."

There's also renewed confidence in MIPS now that it's owned by a stable company, according to Yassaie. "People were worried about MIPS's future, there was a cloud over its head, and now that's gone away."



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