MIPS makers ally to steal some of ARM's thunder

Hardware makers are porting Linux and other open source software to give the MIPS architecture a leg up in the data center

Imagination Technologies is rallying a consortium of hardware makers that use the MIPS processor architecture in order to support the deployment of a wide range of open source software on its MIPS processors.

The consortium, named Prpl (pronounced "purple"), includes a number of folks already working with MIPS in various forms, such as Broadcom, Cavium, Ikanos, Lantiq, PMC-Sierra, and Qualcomm. Prpl's plan is to take open source projects and create reference deployments for them on MIPS so that the architecture becomes a more attractive target for those projects and others like it.

MIPS is a variety of low-power processor similar to the ARM processor currently used widely in mobile devices and embedded applications. But ARM's enjoyed far broader adoption and uptake across the market, both on the hardware and software side, while MIPS has found less of a reception. Software compatibility has played a role in this imbalance; apps written for Android, for instance, have favored ARM or Intel processor architectures and have sometimes not worked on lower-end MIPS-powered tablets.

The coalition is spearheaded by Amit Rohatgi, who previously aided the effort to bring Google's Android to the MIPS platform. He has emphasized that the coalition is an open-ended affair and will even welcome companies already backing rival architectures. Each contributor will focus on its area of expertise -- for example, Qualcomm intends to deliver a carrier-grade build of the OpenWRT software router project.

Projects to be ported include nearly every major Linux distribution: Android, Ubuntu, Red Hat (including Fedora and CentOS), and Google's Chromium OS. Other projects in the running include real-time operating systems and hypervisors.

One key component of the emphasis on operating systems is to get MIPS processors into the data center, along the lines of similar projects aimed at making ARM processors a regular server building block. Consequently, aside from operating systems and common applications, Java is another major project on the to-port list. EE Times noted that the coalition is working with Oracle to produce versions of Java -- in both 32- and 64-bit editions -- for various MIPS cores.

Much of the advantage ARM holds over MIPS right now isn't necessarily technological, but strategic. Analyst Paul Teich with Moor Insights has pointed out how it's the value-add to the core architecture, as provided by system-on-chip integrators like Calxeda, that have allowed it to dominate. Analyst Richard Fichera of Forrester Research was skeptical of MIPS having much of a chance to break into the data center over ARM, although he did think it was "a perfectly good embedded compute resource and is appearing in network-edge devices as programmable cores for both embedded network functions and as a user-programmable device."

Nevertheless, the Prpl consortium's press release claims MIPS sports "unique features ... such as hardware multithreading, 32/64-bit compatibility and hardware virtualization."

It'll be a while before the coalition is able to demonstrate the fruits of any of its labor; as EE Times notes, the first software releases from Prpl will be at least six months off.

This story, "MIPS makers ally to steal some of ARM's thunder," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.