ARM has been making waves over the past two years with plenty of processor and graphics IP announcements, but they are not alone in the game. MIPS Technologies, almost as old as ARM itself, also licenses RISC processors. With licensees like Broadcom and Sigma Designs, they have undoubtedly held the upper hand in the home entertainment / set-top-box arena as well as the networking space. However, success in the fast-growing mobile / tablet space has been hard for MIPS to come by, thanks to ARM being well-entrenched in that market.

Today, MIPS is introducing a range of new processor IP cores in the Aptiv lineup, similar to ARM's Cortex. The members of this lineup range from small microcontroller cores to triple dispatch superscalar ones. By introducing a member at each performance level to compete directly with offerings from ARM, MIPS has made its move in the processor IP battle.

MIPS last introduced a new processor IP core back in September 2010, the MIPS 1074K Coherent Processing System. Between September 2010 and now, ARM officially announced the Cortex-A15 (well after TI had announced an SoC based on it) and Cortex-A7. In the preceding year, the Cortex-A5 and the Cortex-M4 had been launched. The Aptiv series from MIPS introduces members which compete against each of these offerings.

Throughout the briefing, MIPS stressed that the standard DMIPS/MHz/core was not a reliable benchmark. Instead, they promoted CoreMark in which their cores performed better than ARM's offerings. CoreMark is comprised of small and easy to understand ANSI C code with a realistic mixture of read/write operations, integer operations, and control operations. CoreMark has a total binary size of no more then 16K using gcc on an x86 machine (this small size makes it more convenient to run using simulation tools). We do agree with MIPS that it could be a better measure of L1 cache and branch prediction performance. Unfortunately, we don't have reliable CoreMark data for the upcoming Cortex-A15, and hence, will be using DMIPS/MHz/core as a rough performance comparison metric in the rest of the piece.

The Aptiv series being launched today consists of three families, the proAptiv, interAptiv and microAptiv. While proAptiv and interAptiv come in multi-core variants (with up to 6 for the former and 4 for the latter), the microAptiv family members are all single core.

The following tables presents the various MIPS and ARM processor IP cores available for licensing in order of their performance. Note that multiple generations of processors are presented in the table. The Cortex-A,R & M series cater to the application processor segment, real-time processing segment and the microcontroller segment respectively. They are matched field for field by the proAptiv, interAptiv and microAptiv series being launched by MIPS today.

MIPS and ARM High End IP Cores in Order of Performance
proAptiv 3.5 Cortex-A15
  2.5 Cortex-A9
1074K 2.03  
74K 2.0 Cortex-A8
  1.9 Cortex-A7
  1.57 Cortex-A5
M24K 1.46  
  1.24 ARM11
  1.14 ARM9

In terms of processor IP cores catering to real-time applications where high reliability (such as ECC support for the internal caches) and low power footprint is also required, the interAptiv family and the Cortex-R series go head to head. That said, MIPS also targets interAptiv family members as alternatives for Cortex-A5 / A7 / A9. However, the target market for the Cortex-R series and interAptiv series are similar (wireless baseband / automotive applications such as safety and powertrain control etc.)

MIPS and ARM Mid-Range IP Cores in Order of Performance
  2.5 Cortex-R7
interAptiv 1.7  
  1.66 Cortex-R5
34K 1.62 Cortex-R4
1004K 1.5  
24K 1.46  

In the microcontroller class processor IP cores, the microAptiv series is pitted against the Cortex-M series.

MIPS and ARM Microcontroller Class IP Cores in Order of Performance
microAptiv 1.57  
M14K 1.5  
M4K 1.3  
  1.25 Cortex-M3 / Cortex-M4
  0.9 Cortex-M0
  0.8 Cortex-M1

In the next few sections, we will look at the architectural details of the newly introduced processors.


proAptiv Architecture
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  • Daniel Egger - Saturday, May 12, 2012 - link

    The problem is: Maybe MIPS just woke up but as a matter of fact this market is long gone for them since they don't have the force to push anything around. Intel is a much bigger company trying to achieve the very same thing but they're barely moving forward.

    Of course one is free to assembly SoCs with MIPS cores but why would one do that? Most of the auxiliary ICs needed for the completely picture are using ARM-optimized or ARM-only interfaces so there're almost no components to choose from while the generic ones (utilizing PCI(e) or USB) use far too much energy and/or space and are usually not synthesizable. Then there is the price issue: MIPS SoCs for mobile devices will be low volume at the beginning and thus quite expensive compared to ARM devices. And then there's the tooling and compatibility issue: The MIPS hardware support for e.g. Android is rather limited and alpha quality in most areas while ARM and even x86 are quite mature. And then there's the market compatibility issue: Good software needs natively compiled code to perform well, ARM is the default here and x86 will bring an ARM emulator to the table; MIPS can't do snitch here...

    My prediction: Maybe we will see some insane multi-chip prototypes or even one or two (likely Chinese) SoCs and systems based on that for absolute low end phones but they'll go nowhere in the market.

    I'll be far more interesting to see how long it'll take e.g. Ralink to pick up the Aptiv Series for their WLAN SoCs. ;)
  • Scipio Africanus - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    For anyone who is old enough and fortunate enough to remember the SGI workstations, its pretty sad to see what's become of MIPS based machines. My college was an SGI shop and our 6-CPU R4400 SGI Octane server was an awesome sight to behold in the days of Pentium 1 and 2. So were the Indy and Indigo workstations where we would play GLQuake.
  • martinw - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    Octane was a dual socket workstation, not a 6 socket server. Perhaps you are thinking of a Challenge server?

    I remember when the first R4k and the first R10k SGI machines came out - amazing performance at the time...
  • Scipio Africanus - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    You're right, it was a Challenge L server now that I think about it.

    During the introduction tour, we saw a real time rendering of a shark. Of course it looked cartoonish by any standard today but the fact that the motion was fluid and it was being rendered real time was jaw dropping. Seeing that and be awestruck is stuck in my memory permanently.
  • iwod - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    1. I am pretty sure MIPS is older then ARM. While the article points to ARM being older.

    2. Do this news IPs have something similar to big.LITTLE?

    3. Performance / Mhz doesn't matter, Performance / Watts does.

    4. Apart from MIPS being used in Network equipment, and some set top box, and some Tablet. There are no new market that are using them. Network Market uses them solely because they dont want to reinvest in software and hardware. ( Hence why our Router is still dog slow ).

    And I also dont understand why Tablet Maker would want to use MIPS instead. How much cheaper is it?

    5. Even NAS moved to ARM based SoC ( Kirkwood ) instead of MIPS many years ago.

    6. Set Top Box maker are now moving to wards ARM solution since there are many more ready made solution.

    So yea, What exactly does MIPS have an advantage? Unlike Intel who could damn well push Atom into 14nm Node and just Brute Force winning by Manufacturing Technology.
  • jamyryals - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    Nice article Ganesh, I learned a lot. Keep up the good work.
  • Avenkidur - Saturday, May 12, 2012 - link

    If process technology plateaus, or even slows, and we stop harvesting the benefits of shrinkage, power efficiency, speed, and cost -- could it be an opportunity for MIPS and Micro-Kernels? Technology is at the point where the best design is allocating all resources to the computer to think for itself instead of trying to guess ahead?

    They both seemed ahead of their time, elegant in theory but challenged to deliver on performance on an open playing field.

    ARM is doing well primarily because it is more power efficient than x86 and it crossed the threshold of good enough for smartphones. MIPS is fundamentally even more power efficient than ARM, and it will easier scale to more cores.

    I mentioned Micro-Kernels because I feel it is the same design philosophy, just in software. They've got an opportunity coming up to be a single OS that spans a broad range of targeted usages -- they can securely enable and disable drivers on the fly, and the core codebase is not polluted with legacy needs so the whole thing can be secure, while rapidly iterating into new possible features (it's not just sound and video now. Multiple microphones, NFC, motion sensing, computer vision --- who knows what else might be designed in at a deep level.)

    iOS is only 5 years old, and you feel it: on what the new devices can't do (fast-switching instead of multi-tasking, that animated lag coverup), on the old devices that can't keep up under the updates that have features bundled in they can't use, the need to restart to update the OS, a software crash can take the whole system down, the multitude of ways to hack into a strangers' phone, the extra work necessary just to port one application to AppleTV, iPod/iPhone, iPad, iMac.
  • Avenkidur - Saturday, May 12, 2012 - link

    duh.. I forgot to mention that Micro-Kernels are the best suited to take advantage of multiple cores, which is the first reason I brought them into a post about it maybe being a chance for MIPS to make a dent
  • xenol - Saturday, May 12, 2012 - link

    It's nice to know that ARM isn't going to be the only 32-bit guy in the microcontroller universe once the 8-bit/16-bit guys start phasing out. I just hope others take MIPS in.

    I also guess that depends on whether or not software development tools for Aptiv are up to snuff.
  • ET - Monday, May 14, 2012 - link

    That's the best article about these processors that I found. I love it that you went to MIPS for clarifications.

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