Defections to ARM hurt PowerPC, MIPS

ARM processors are going into more embedded devices, which could hurt PowerPC the most

The PowerPC is best known for powering old Mac computers, while MIPS processors were in the first PlayStation, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and the first $99 Android tablets. Now, both processor families are widely used in equipment like networking gear but are being threatened with the emergence of ARM chips for embedded devices.

The ARM chip architecture is used in most smartphones and tablets, but is making its way into a wide range of appliances and computer equipment used in data centers and offices. More chip makers are expanding their use of ARM in so-called embedded equipment such as storage and networking devices, and even multifunction printers.

MIPS and PowerPC chips were originally designed for workstations and PCs, and have found a stronghold in embedded devices. ARM processors, however, are getting faster, and more developers are writing programs for the architecture. Intel is also trying to expand its presence in the embedded market with its x86 chips, but is not as strong there as its competitors.

The explosion of mobile devices has helped ARM, increasing awareness of the architecture and swaying more software developers in its direction. ARM is making an impact in the market for embedded devices with the newer 64-bit chips, which can speedily analyze and process data, analysts said.

PowerPC will perhaps suffer the most from ARM's emergence, said David Kanter, an analyst at the Linley Group.

"ARM really got to the point where their cores were used by almost everyone -- even Intel -- whereas PowerPC was always just for a few companies," Kanter said. "IBM's major open-source presence carried PowerPC a long ways, but it simply isn't enough to overcome the resources behind ARM."

MIPS is in better shape and is still backed by legacy installations. Backward compatibility may prompt hardware makers to continue using the processor architecture in newer hardware.

"MIPS never had a major open source backing, so fell behind faster. But because it's a licensable ISA [instruction set architecture] with licensable cores, there was more widespread support historically," Kanter said.

Nevertheless, ARM is enjoying fresh support. For example, AppliedMicro -- which offers embedded processors based on MIPS and PowerPC -- is now looking to ARM for its newer embedded chips.

"With the vast ecosystem around ARM solutions and a wide variety of performance-to-power optimization points that ARM has to offer, now including the high-end performance of 64-bit ARM cores, there's not much motivation for a system designer to adopt a niche ... architecture for new designs," said Chris Bergen, senior director for technology at AppliedMicro, in an e-mail.

AppliedMicro is using ARM in its latest Helix-2 for products that require high performance, low-power consumption and either wired or wireless connectivity. Helix-2 is also designed for use in Internet-of-things equipment, where the ability to quickly analyze and transmit data is paramount.

ARM has an early advantage over rival architectures in the IoT market, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"When you think about IoT devices and networking solutions going forward, it's pretty clear that IoT runs on ARM," McGregor said. "That's not to say that MIPS, PowerPC, and even X86 don't have a place. The architectures themselves have advantages in certain applications and will continue to in the future, but they don't have the development of the ecosystem of ARM."

Equipment makers like to standardize on one architecture to reduce hardware development costs, and ARM is receiving a lot of backing, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Coming from a mobile background, ARM's architecture has been geared for devices that demand power efficiency, McCarron said.

Network equipment makers Cisco and Netgear have thrown their weight behind the ARM architecture.

Cavium and Broadcom, which are heavy MIPS backers, have also started using ARM in embedded chips. Analyst firm Linley Group believes Broadcom's ARM chip shipments will outpace its MIPS chip shipments in the coming years.

But MIPS architecture is still being widely used in wearables, and maintains a large market share in networking equipment and set-top boxes. MIPS Technologies was on the brink of collapsing until it was bought by Imagination Technologies in 2012. Imagination is resuscitating MIPS and in the last 12 months has signed more than 48 new licensees for the architecture. The number of devices with MIPS CPUs has reached all-time highs.

So although ARM is making headway outside of the mobile arena, it is not taking over in embedded and other application areas, said Tony-King Smith, executive vice president of marketing at MIPS.

"MIPS is not only here to stay, it's getting a lot stronger thanks to Imagination more than doubling resources and investing massively in its future," Smith said. "MIPS delivers superior performance in less silicon area, and will be a key player in the future of IoT and all things embedded where these things make all the difference, already demonstrated in markets such as networking and enterprise where MIPS has major market share."

King pointed out that Imagination customers have a wide variety of CPUs, video processors and connectivity options to mix and match on a chip, Smith said.

Imagination is best known for its PowerVR graphics core. It has also announced new MIPS Series5 Warrior CPUs, and expects the first mobile devices based on its new 64-bit architecture in 2016. MIPS is already compatible with Android, and Oracle is porting Java to MIPS.

On paper, MIPS processors offer the power-efficiency and performance of ARM CPUs. But Mercury Research's McCarron said sometimes one company just does better, as exemplified by the PC processor market, with Intel topping Advanced Micro Devices even though their chips are on equal footing in terms of features.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

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