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MIPS processors go virtual

Release 5 of the MIPS chip architecture
Thu Dec 06 2012, 14:00

PROCESSOR DESIGNER MIPS announced a major new release of its chip architecture today, release 5 which succeeds release 3.

The major new features of release 5 include hardware assisted virtualization as well as new SIMD instructions.

MIPS is not the best known processor architecture, but it is used in a wide range of set top boxes, smart metering and networking equipment, to name just a few. Lately we have also seen tablets and smartphones designed based on the MIPS architecture, but they are still very few and mainly designed in China.

Hardware virtualization is important for at least two reasons. In the embedded markets such as networking and set top boxes many manufacturers use up to five heterogeneous cores each running a single application. By employing virtualization it is possible to consolidate these applications on fewer cores, thus making the chips cheaper to design and manufacture.

In the mobile market there is also a growing demand for virtualization. Virtualization will allow smartphones and tablets to run several virtual machines with distinct security models. This means that content protection, payment services and so on can be isolated in separate machines making security much easier to enforce.

Another use on smartphones will be to allow corporate apps to run in their own virtual machine. Should the owner then leave the company, the IT department can disable the virtual machine and the user can go ahead and keep the phone and use all the personal apps without the employer having to fear abuse of corporate data.

The SIMD instruction set is a standardized way of extending the base instruction set with multimedia instructions for video and other streaming content.

Finally, MIPS has included its functions for multithreading in the base and has enhanced the address space for its 32-bit architecture thus allowing for larger programs and data segments without the need to switch to 64-bit mode.

Virtualization and SIMD have been added to the architecture as optional modules that are not part of the baseline. These modules allow for a standardized way to extend the instruction set. Previously virtualization on MIPS has been accomplished in software. Google for example has a virtualization solution for Android running in its labs, but the hardware assisted solution from MIPS is both faster and more complete.

If you are wondering what happened to release 4, it has been dropped out of consideration for Chinese customers. Four in Chinese is prounced "si", which is very similar to the pronounciation of the Chinese word for death, and therefore the number four is considered unlucky.

With this release MIPS is ready to gain ground on its major competitor ARM. It will also be interesting to see if its Chinese parther ICT will be one of the licensees of the new architecture. µ


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