Throughout its history, MIPS has changed hands and IPOed more than once. But, in a surprising turn of events, it has ended up under control of a Chinese company.
As a result, Chinese companies may now license crucial processor architecture IP from the company and develop their SoCs for various purposes without any restrictions imposed by the U.S.
Starting from 2018, the US government tightened restrictions on direct Chinese investments in the American startups in a bid not to let the Chinese control new technologies.
In addition, select Chinese companies — most notably Huawei Technologies and its subsidiaries — were included in the US Department of Commerce Entity List, which required them to obtain a special license to access technologies developed in the US in general.
This prevented Huawei and some others from working with multiple partners in the country. But apparently, as a result of a series of acquisitions and licensing agreements, the Chinese high-tech companies can still access technologies developed by MIPS, one of the oldest CPU developers from California.
MIPS changes hands
MIPS Computer Systems was established in the early 1980s by a group of scientists from Stanford University, who worked on a project called Microprocessor without Interlocked Pipeline Stages (MIPS).
The researchers successfully developed the MIPS architecture and various cores on its base and then licensed their technologies to other companies willing to design actual CPUs powered by MIPS.
The company was quite successful from 1980s to 1992, when it was acquired by Silicon Graphics Inc to develop in-house CPUs and offer higher performance than it was possible with off-the-shelf offerings from competitors.
SGI spun off MIPS in 1998, the company went public and continued with its licensing business model. While not as successful as Arm, MIPS licensed its cores to a wide range of companies, creating chips for an equally wide range of applications.
Some time in 2013, Imagination Technologies decided that, in a bid to be competitive with Arm, it needed CPU IP in addition to GPU IP, so it took over MIPS, which is when the turbulence began for the processor company. In early 2017, Apple announced plans to stop using Imagination’s GPU IP within two years and, while not many details were revealed, Imagination’s stock plummeted and the board decided to sell the company to a private investor.
China-backed Canyon Bridge acquired ImgTec in late 2017, but in a bid not to provoke the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an organization that reviews foreign investments, MIPS was spun off from ImgTec before the deal was sealed.
China gets MIPS’s technologies
In September 2017, MIPS was taken over by Tallwood Venture Capital controlled by Diosdado P. Banatao, who earlier co-founded Mostron, Chips and Technologies, and S3 Graphics.
Mr. Banatao transferred MIPS ownership to Wave Computing in mid-2018, which is co-owned by Banatao and Alibaba. Later, Wave Computing transferred MIPS licensing rights to a Samoan-registered company called Prestige Century Investment as a result of insolvency proceedings. Prestige Century Investments happens to be a 100% owner of CIP United, a China-registered company.
CIP United now controls all MIPS licensing rights for all customers in China, Hong Kong and Macau, and has the ability to design new derivative technologies based on the MIPS architecture, according to Reuters, which cites four sources. Among others, Huawei Technologies is a licensee of CIP and MIPS.
But what about software and manufacturing?
Since CIP United now controls IP developed by MIPS (albeit, only in China), its customers can access it and develop SoCs for various applications starting from sensors and SSD controllers and going all the way to self-driving cars and supercomputer-class CPUs. However, there are two challenges for adopters of the MIPS architecture: software support and production.
The MIPS architecture is not supported by Google’s Android operating system at the same level as Arm’s architectures. To that end, MIPS licensees either have to rely on other OSes or tailor open-source Android for their needs. For many MIPS licensees, lack of Android support is not a problem since they develop chips for applications that use different OSes. In fact, many of MIPS-powered devices use proprietary software anyway.
Meanwhile, a technology giant like Huawei has resources to advanced open-source Android in accordance with their needs.
But Huawei has a different problem. It cannot work with any contract maker of semiconductors that use technologies developed in the USA, which means all foundries, including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) in Taiwan as well as Semiconductor Manufacturing International Co. (SMIC) in China.
Being unable to access manufacturing makes Huawei’s chip design prowess useless. What will be interesting is whether the company finds a workaround for this conundrum too.
Made in China 2025
Huawei is one of the largest high-tech companies in China, but for the country’s government the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan is considerably more important than a single company, since it represents a new multi-billion industry that does not depend on foreign investments or technologies.
The number of Chinese chip designers skyrocketed from 736 in 2015 to 1,780 in 2017. Many of these companies need CPU IP and some may not be inclined to use Arm. For them, MIPS and RISC-V architectures are two natural choices and MIPS has an edge over RISC-V right now.
MIPS does have off-the-shelf high-performance CPU cores comparable to Arm’s Cortex-A70-series or Neoverse, but it is possible to use the MIPS architecture to build something powerful enough for servers. For example, China’s Loongson Technology develops MIPS64 CPUs for client devices and servers and there are also Green500 supercomputers based on MIPS CPUs.
Unrestricted access to MIPS’s CPU and other IP seems to be crucially important not only for select companies, but the whole Made in China 2025 plan.