To say the MIPS architecture has had a chequered history is probably an understatement. Originally launched as a processor company in the early 1980s, MIPS then tried to move into making computers before being taken over by Silicon Graphics (SGI). It was spun out by SGI in the early 2000s and went through a number of incarnations, eventually being set up as an IP company.

The latest move for the company was its acquisition by Imagination Technologies in 2013. That move wasn’t well received by a number of industry watchers, who saw potential conflict with Imagination’s existing PowerVR technology.

But MIPS is making a strong contribution to Imagination’s revenue, with sales of £30.1million in 2016 representing 25% of the company’s income.

Jim Nicholas, executive vice president of Imagination’s MIPS business unit, said that, at the time of the MIPS acquisition, the company was focusing on mobile computing. “We had to reorganise the business in 2016, changing the business objectives and vision. In the early days after the acquisition, MIPS was all about trying to compete with ARM and playing in all domains. But we decided to focus on embedded computing and, in particular, on applications where ARM didn’t have a significant presence.

“We’re now focusing on the M and I cores within the Warrior family and are beginning to see some positive momentum.” And the reason for this, he contended, is that customers like the fact that MIPS is focusing on domains where it can help them to differentiate.”

Some of that momentum can be seen in design wins with Israeli ADAS specialist Mobileye, which is using Warrior I6500 CPU in its EyeQ SoC, and with Denso, which is doing joint research with Imagination on hardware multithreading technology for next-generation in-vehicle electronic systems.

Nicholas contends the MIPS architecture has two differentiators. “Multithreading as IP and hardware virtualisation in an MCU. We’re seeing our technology being used in set top boxes, networking and automotive and we are seeing the characteristics of the MIPS architecture bringing advantages in artificial intelligence.”

He sees multithreading as an important asset. “It’s important because it’s a way in which the resources in a processor can be used more efficiently; accessing memory when running a program, for example. We think multithreading can bring performance improvements of up to 60% and that fits well with ADAS, as well as in modems.”

Hardware virtualisation plays well to the rapidly developing security needs of a range of markets. “It allows you to have multiple secure execution environments, and that’s important if you want to have multiple applications running securely – for example, a Wi-Fi stack, a sensor, an algorithm and an RTOS.”

Now, Nicholas is working on what he calls a new generation of secure MCUs for IoT applications, including smart homes, smart cities and the industrial IoT.

“We’re also working on heterogeneous compute platforms for AI,” he added.

One important part of MIPS’ history is its development of a 64bit processor in the 1980s; long before other companies were looking at this part of the market and Nicholas sees that as a bonus. “64bit is good for applications such as autonomous vehicles, mobile computing and high performance computing. It’s also beginning to be seen in networking applications. But if you have a 64bit processor, you can still run 32bit code without having to do changes in terms of mode switching.

“But 32bit computing is still where the volume is,” he concluded.