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Defections to ARM hurt PowerPC, MIPS

Agam Shah | Feb. 6, 2015
The PowerPC is best known for powering old Mac computers, while MIPS processors were in the first PlayStation, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and the first $99 Android tablets. Now, both processor families are widely used in equipment like networking gear but are being threatened with the emergence of ARM chips for embedded devices.

The PowerPC is best known for powering old Mac computers, while MIPS processors were in the first PlayStation, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and the first $99 Android tablets. Now, both processor families are widely used in equipment like networking gear but are being threatened with the emergence of ARM chips for embedded devices.

The ARM chip architecture is used in most smartphones and tablets, but is making its way into a wide range of appliances and computer equipment used in data centers and offices. More chip makers are expanding their use of ARM in so-called embedded equipment such as storage and networking devices, and even multifunction printers.

MIPS and PowerPC chips were originally designed for workstations and PCs, and have found a stronghold in embedded devices. ARM processors, however, are getting faster, and more developers are writing programs for the architecture. Intel is also trying to expand its presence in the embedded market with its x86 chips, but is not as strong there as its competitors.

The explosion of mobile devices has helped ARM, increasing awareness of the architecture and swaying more software developers in its direction. ARM is making an impact in the market for embedded devices with the newer 64-bit chips, which can speedily analyze and process data, analysts said.

PowerPC will perhaps suffer the most from ARM's emergence, said David Kanter, an analyst at the Linley Group.

"ARM really got to the point where their cores were used by almost everyone — even Intel — whereas PowerPC was always just for a few companies," Kanter said. "IBM's major open-source presence carried PowerPC a long ways, but it simply isn't enough to overcome the resources behind ARM."

MIPS is in better shape and is still backed by legacy installations. Backward compatibility may prompt hardware makers to continue using the processor architecture in newer hardware.

"MIPS never had a major open source backing, so fell behind faster. But because it's a licensable ISA [instruction set architecture] with licensable cores, there was more widespread support historically," Kanter said.

Nevertheless, ARM is enjoying fresh support. For example, AppliedMicro — which offers embedded processors based on MIPS and PowerPC — is now looking to ARM for its newer embedded chips.

"With the vast ecosystem around ARM solutions and a wide variety of performance-to-power optimization points that ARM has to offer, now including the high-end performance of 64-bit ARM cores, there's not much motivation for a system designer to adopt a niche ... architecture for new designs," said Chris Bergen, senior director for technology at AppliedMicro, in an e-mail.

AppliedMicro is using ARM in its latest Helix-2 for products that require high performance, low-power consumption and either wired or wireless connectivity. Helix-2 is also designed for use in Internet-of-things equipment, where the ability to quickly analyze and transmit data is paramount.

 

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