Back to the future (of mobile computing)
In 1984, a group of close friends (John Hennessy, John Moussouris and Edward “Skip” Stritter) founded a new company called MIPS Computer Systems. Back then minicomputers (‘mini’ had a wide definition at the time) were establishing themselves against mainframe workstation dominance. The IBM PC and Apple II/III computers were hugely popular and the age of personal computers was just starting to boom.
Founder of MIPS Computer Systems and current Stanford University President, John L. Hennessy
Meanwhile, in the research labs of universities like Stanford and Berkeley and companies like IBM, an interesting new trend was emerging. RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) was a completely new idea for CPU architectures. The plan was to design and architect a CPU with a very simple instruction set, tuned to the capabilities of the implementation fabrication technology, so that those instructions could be run especially fast, using techniques such as pipelining, which had only been used in large mainframe computers.
This is how the MIPS architecture was born. Since then, it has seen important growth in a variety of markets from tiny 32-bit sensors and microcontrollers to game consoles, DTVs, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players and network routers to 64-bit networking equipment and even supercomputers.
Around the same time, in 1985, a new company called VideoLogic made its entrance on the multimedia market, later designing GPUs for PC platforms as well as home audio and video systems. Its first main product was the PowerVR GPU technology; this line of licensable GPU designs had a unique way of rendering graphics called tile based deferred rendering (TBDR). PowerVR was originally introduced to compete in the desktop PC market for 3D hardware accelerators by delivering a product with a better price/performance ratio than existing solutions from competitors like 3dfx Interactive.
In 1999, VideoLogic refocused on IP licensing and changed its name to Imagination Technologies. PowerVR became the industry’s leading GPU IP solution, being integrated in the most iconic smartphones, tablets and other handheld devices. It launched a new wave in the mobile revolution by directly influencing the way companies thought about portable devices. By integrating a PowerVR GPU on a computing chip, phones became smarter: they could run operating systems and applications, rapidly becoming the primary computing device for many.
Imagination Technologies CEO, Hossein Yassaie
Over the last decade, Imagination has become much more than a graphics company, expanding into multimedia and connectivity technologies, through its Ensigma radio processors, Meta CPUs, HelloSoft V.VoIP and VoLTE stacks, and Caustic Professional digital content solutions.
As both companies started to reap the benefits of their unique R&D efforts, there were some wider industry trends that were emerging in parallel which allowed them to keep growing:
- academic VLSI design was being popularized by the work from Carver Mead and Lynn Conway, in particular, making it possible for graduate students to create new circuits, play with ideas, and develop new technologies; this encouraged the appearance and emergence of the IP business model.
- manufacturing technology had improved to the point that the fabs were ready to mass produce a new generation of processors; fabless companies were now able to license IP and produce their low-power chipsets in large volumes, without worrying about the costs of maintaining a manufacturing business.
- UNIX was quickly making a name for itself as an open, readily available, and most importantly, portable operating system, that could be put onto a new microprocessor, or computer architecture, without having to rewrite the complete operating system. UNIX later morphed into Linux and Android; it created a level plain field for CPU and GPU architectures alike to compete based on efficiency and performance rather than locked-in, proprietary standards.
Imagination + MIPS = a new force in CPUs
Fast forward to 2013, Imagination is now the custodian of the MIPS architecture, aiming to create a new industry-leading force in CPU development and licensing alongside its extended multimedia and connectivity IP solutions. This acquisition provides a well-established ecosystem of customers, developers, operating systems and tool providers, who will all benefit from the strengthened position and broader IP offering that the newly combined business has to offer.
The Stanford Daily recently sat down with MIPS Founder (and now President of Stanford University) John Hennessy and Imagination CEO Hossein Yassaie to discuss the early beginning of the MIPS architecture, Imagination’s continued growth in the mobile and embedded space, and the future of computing.
Here are some excerpts from their discussion. You can find the interview in its entirety on the Stanford Daily website.
The Stanford Daily: How does acquiring MIPS accelerate your activities at Imagination, and what was the thinking behind the move?
Hossein Yassaie: We fundamentally believe that the processor market is a big market, […] an area that is growing. As I think John [Hennessy] touched on, this market started with areas such as game consoles and embedded applications and then mobile phones happened and tablets.
On the horizon, everyone talks about connected devices and Internet of Things. We went from tens of millions to hundreds of millions to a few billion, and now I think we’re heading toward tens of billions of things which are clever and smart so the processor business is very important for us.
We’re a key IP company with significant customers, so we’ve had our own processor development internally since 1995, and it’s very much a philosophy […] we were working on in terms of multithreading and RISC architectures. But it’s just in the last year in discussion with the MIPS executives and team [that] it became clear that there is a mechanism for us acquiring MIPS in a structure that means we double the team size.
We had about 200 people on our processor team, and now we’re double that, and that combination means that, in terms of capability and know-how, and the additional ecosystems MIPS brings to us — particularly with the fact that MIPS is in the Android tree — […] getting where we want to be with the processor technology scaled up, both in terms of resources and where we are in the marketplace.
The Stanford Daily: Are those factors [performance, power and area advantages of RISC architectures] you talked about with efficiency, things that make MIPS attractive in low-cost markets maybe for the future?
Hossein Yassaie: From Imagination’s point of view… One of the major constraints in mobile devices is that there is not a cable that is plugged into power and there is not a fan in there. So you have a set power envelope that you have to live with. And not only that, the demands that consumers have: they want it be to be as good as their PCs.
And actually we’re pretty much there. That’s really, if you look at the history of Imagination, we built our business in the mid-90s saying, “OK, graphics is a big deal for mobile. Against all odds, let’s put our efforts into creating a very powerful solution for mobile and get graphics into the devices and handsets.”
Now going forward, everything needs to be smart, everything needs a CPU and power is still a constraint. We certainly believe MIPS is one of the most efficient architectures that exists on this planet and certainly have expectations and aspirations that it will grow from this base with the help and energy we can put behind it and become a big player in the market space.
John Hennessy: Efficiency has become the key issue — that’s the key phrase. It was less important early on when people were not as cost sensitized. It’s one thing when you’re building computers that cost several thousand dollars. It’s another when you’re building a smartphone that only costs $200 or you’re building an embedded device that may only cost $50 or $25. Then it’s a completely different game.
Hossein Yassaie: There’s also another interesting thing that has happened recently. If you go back in the early days of say the mobile phone market, a lot of these systems were closed. A particular operating system, a particular manufacturer — it wasn’t really an open market.
With what is out there with Android and the Linux environments that exist, the market is there and, as long as there is a good architecture that can deliver the performance, power and cost, amazing things could happen.
The other aspect of this [acquisition] for Imagination is that MIPS is a fantastic architecture, and there are a lot of great people in that company. In the licensing business, stability is very important. Once you have a long-term plan and commitment behind an architecture, and there’re no changes or concerns or issues, then things will change.
Existing markets that MIPS has been in, such as networking or set top boxes, wherever MIPS was a key driver, those customers will feel once again much more confident about the future and the security of MIPS.
There are a lot of people out there; their lives and engineering work in some way have been touched by MIPS. They have true love for the architecture. We’re counting on this to allow us to take MIPS to the highest level of success and glory that is possible.
The Stanford Daily: If you were to go back to when you first started this work, could you have anticipated this level of success with the MIPS architecture? And when you’re looking back 50 years from now, what do you hope people are saying about it?
John Hennessy: We knew that we had discovered something fairly fundamental — we understood that. We didn’t understand how all the pieces fit together. The leap generated by the early MIPS architecture the very first RISC architecture, was significant enough that you could say this really was a breakthrough.
You never know what the successes will be like. Especially when you’re at a small company, and you’re fighting for your life, and you’re up and down. At one point, the company was down to 10 days of operating capital — this was many years ago in the early ’80s — but with 10 days of operating capital, you have to do something or you’re going to be out of business shortly.
And that’s what it’s like for startup companies. The fact that the architecture bloomed, it really bloomed with this movement out into the embedded space. And I’m excited to see Imagination pick up and build on this incredible history and take this to the next level as we go forward. I think the world is going to get better, and we’re going to see lots of interesting breakthroughs and uses of this technology, and I’m excited to see Imagination do it.
Hossein Yassaie: I think in particular having been to a couple of exhibitions recently and talking to customers, there’s definitely strong support and interest for the growth and success of MIPS. This is important for Imagination as it is for the industry.
The industry needs alternative CPUs giving choice to people, and we certainly recognize the history of MIPS, and our aim is to develop and safeguard and be a good custodian, taking this architecture forward and creating a kind of solution in IP that many customers can use and commit to for the long range.