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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.

ARM has an early advantage over rival architectures in the IoT market, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"When you think about IoT devices and networking solutions going forward, it's pretty clear that IoT runs on ARM," McGregor said. "That's not to say that MIPS, PowerPC, and even X86 don't have a place. The architectures themselves have advantages in certain applications and will continue to in the future, but they don't have the development of the ecosystem of ARM."

Equipment makers like to standardize on one architecture to reduce hardware development costs, and ARM is receiving a lot of backing, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Coming from a mobile background, ARM's architecture has been geared for devices that demand power efficiency, McCarron said.

Network equipment makers Cisco and Netgear have thrown their weight behind the ARM architecture.

Cavium and Broadcom, which are heavy MIPS backers, have also started using ARM in embedded chips. Analyst firm Linley Group believes Broadcom's ARM chip shipments will outpace its MIPS chip shipments in the coming years.

But MIPS architecture is still being widely used in wearables, and maintains a large market share in networking equipment and set-top boxes. MIPS Technologies was on the brink of collapsing until it was bought by Imagination Technologies in 2012. Imagination is resuscitating MIPS and in the last 12 months has signed more than 48 new licensees for the architecture. The number of devices with MIPS CPUs has reached all-time highs.

So although ARM is making headway outside of the mobile arena, it is not taking over in embedded and other application areas, said Tony-King Smith, executive vice president of marketing at MIPS.

"MIPS is not only here to stay, it's getting a lot stronger thanks to Imagination more than doubling resources and investing massively in its future," Smith said. "MIPS delivers superior performance in less silicon area, and will be a key player in the future of IoT and all things embedded where these things make all the difference, already demonstrated in markets such as networking and enterprise where MIPS has major market share."

Smith pointed out that Imagination customers have a wide variety of CPUs, video processors and connectivity options to mix and match on a chip.

Imagination is best known for its PowerVR graphics core. It has also announced new MIPS Series5 Warrior CPUs, and expects the first mobile devices based on its new 64-bit architecture in 2016. MIPS is already compatible with Android, and Oracle is porting Java to MIPS.

On paper, MIPS processors offer the power-efficiency and performance of ARM CPUs. But Mercury Research's McCarron said sometimes one company just does better, as exemplified by the PC processor market, with Intel topping Advanced Micro Devices even though their chips are on equal footing in terms of features.


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