Nicholas, now an executive vice president at Imagination Technologies Group plc (Kings Langley, England), has been responsible for the MIPS business unit since May 2014. He has a variety of engineering and management positions on his CV including time spent at STMicroelectronics, ST-Ericsson and ARM. But at Imagination he has seen his former CEO – Sir Hossein Yassaie – stepping down in February 2016 under the cloud of losses at the company, and some other senior executives departing the company.
It could be argued that the acquisition of MIPS by Imagination back in 2013 was itself a mistake. Not least because it encouraged the comparison of CPU-graphics bundles from rival IP licensor ARM Ltd. (Cambridge, England) and Imagination to benefit of ARM. That is comparisons of Cortex-Mali versus MIPS-PowerVR rather than best-in-class comparisons of GPUs that might have favoured Imagination’s PowerVR. Certainly, the breadth of Imagination’s portfolio contributed to losses in 2016 and a restructuring that is now almost complete.
Nicholas said: “We’ve reduced six business entities to three.” The remaining three business units are PowerVR GPUs, MIPS CPUs and Ensigma radio and connectivity cores.
What’s gone is the DAB digital radio operation Pure, which has been sold. Imagination also ran IMG-Works as a chip design operation for putting together system-chip platforms based on IP cores and that is in the process of being sold, said Nicholas. And IMG-Systems which added firmware and software on top of IP cores, and was responsible for Imagination’s Creator board, has been folded into the MIPS business unit.
Next: A clean slate
“By the start of the next financial year [May 1, 2017] we will have a clean slate,” said Nicholas. “Now we are IP focused,” he said.
But surely being IP focused and just an alternative to ARM is not enough?
Nicholas said that in the past there had been an ambition to compete head-to-head against ARM. “Now MIPS will play in application domains where it can win.” Nicholas acknowledged ARM’s strength in mobile phones and microcontrollers but said there are a lot of other sectors where ARM is not so strong including; automotive; IoT excluding MCUs; industrial and networking. “There is enough room for MIPS to find a home,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas added that MIPS can win where technologies such as the multi-threading of cores and hardware virtualization can help it differentiate. He added that MIPS looks to markets such as automotive, smart home, smart cities where its support for security will be valued.
This has been said before when Imagination was acquiring MIPS and it did not lead to spectacular success. But Nicholas said the arguments should not be dismissed. As an example he pointed out that multiple MIPS cores are deployed inside Mobileye’s highly successful ADAS processors (see Mobileye to adopt Imagination’s ‘heterogeneous inside and out’ MIPS CPU).
Mobileye NV (Jerusalem, Israel) is a company that has pioneered heterogeneous processing and machine learning via hardware accelerators and is in the process of being acquired by Intel Corp. for about $15 billion in a deal expected to close by the end of 2017. Given the size of the market expected for semiconductors for ADAS, which is of the order of a few billion dollars per year with a strong CAGR, this might look like good news for Nicholas and Imagination. In the medium to longer term Intel may prefer to use its own processor cores and much of the value is in any case in the machine learning software and proprietary hardware developed by Mobileye.
Imagination announced in November 2016 that it would be doing joint research with Japanese automotive supplier Denso Corp. The topic being hardware multithreading that enables a CPU to execute multiple processes concurrently. The companies agree that this technology can provide an advantage for next-generation in-vehicle electronic systems.
And even though Imagination is not targeting mobile communications MIPS cores are present in LTE-modem designs for both routers and smartphones, Nicholas said.
Nicholas insists that most of the MIPS engineering has been retained since the acquisition and by adding them to Imagination’s Meta processor team, made even stronger. “The big thing is changing the culture to one of execution. That means core design, core implementation, sales. The period of 2014 to 2016 was about getting the execution culture going, not being late with cores,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas has also put the focus on the M and I series of cores rather than the high-performance P class. This means delivering hardware virtualization in MCU class cores to provide up to seven secure environments that are also secure from each other and the use of multi-threading in embedded processors.
Next: Get MIPS into AI
Clearly one of the best ways to compete with ARM and other IP providers is to move into nascent markets and technologies before them. IP market leader ARM does present rivals with an opportunity. ARM only moves when it is quite sure that a technology produces a significant benefit and it has customers for it. For the rival or startup that is prepared to gamble this means it is possible to get a technology position before ARM.
Nicholas said: “I challenged my colleagues to get us into the position where we are an AI company. We are building expertise in this.” Nicholas acknowledged that the machine learning expertise in the EyeQ series of chips from Mobileye is proprietary.
So for now there is not a lot Nicholas can say about machine learning cores. “We are moving to apply SIMD [single-instruction multiple data]. There’s a working team in place. And PowerVR has been used for machine learning in the form of GPU-compute.”
This sounds like a similar approach to one already taken by ARM but Nicholas indicated there would be further announcements. And meanwhile the sale of ARM to Softbank has not hurt Imagination’s fortunes, Nicholas said. “Ever since Softbank’s acquisition of ARM we have seen heightened interest and an uptick in business.”
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