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MIPS Mulls Microcontrollers

New 32-bit MCU Line

The processor IP market isn’t just about processors anymore.  A number of companies make outstanding processor core IP, but getting design teams to engineer those into products requires a lot more than a snappy Dhrystone number.  Product developers want to make sure that their designs are backed up by a rich portfolio of development tools, operating system and middleware support, and compatible peripheral IP.  MIPS sells some of the fastest, lowest power, most widely used processor cores on the market.  They have a strong market share in devices like set-top boxes and consumer electronics. 

MIPS has also always had a robust ecosystem with peripheral IP, hardware and software development tools, and a thriving community of developers and third-party suppliers.  Recently, they took that offering even farther with their acquisition of Chipidea – an analog IP company with a broad offering of popular analog and mixed-signal blocks. 

Now, the company is putting all that stuff to work and jumping into the highly-competitive 32-bit microcontroller (MCU) market.  They took all that analog and digital IP and stitched it into something that is in big demand – microcontrollers aimed at automotive, industrial control, and other applications making the move to 32-bit MCUs.  The company brings all the building blocks you need for the “make your own MCU” kit for your next system-on-chip design, and also everything we presume would be needed by many of the semiconductor companies that make broad lines of MCUs to add a MIPS-powered family to their product offerings.

So – what’s in an MCU besides the processor?  MIPS combines their 32-bit cores and EJTAG debug (from FS2 – a previous acquisition) with analog IP from Chipidea.  Chipidea’s GPIO, I2C, SPI, RTC, and PWM drivers can be used for system control functions.  Their assortment of up-down converters and battery chargers are useful for power and battery management.  They also have a wide range of MAC and PHY blocks supporting popular interfaces like USB, Ethernet, MIPI, and HDMI as well as analog front-ends like GPS, WiMax, and UWB.  If your application involves audio, MIPS/Chipidea offers analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, codecs, sum of differences, and class-D amplifiers.  The company’s analog IP is proven through foundries like TSMC, UMC, Tower, SMIC, Common, and others on process technology ranging from 180nm down to 65nm and now even some 45nm and 32nm support.

Even in the traditionally bit-stingy MCU market, 32-bit cores are rapidly becoming the standard.  Automotive, consumer, and industrial applications are growing in sophistication and need the larger memories and increased processing power that 32-bit architectures afford.  MCUs are now performing processing-intensive functions like encryption and decryption, networking, and higher-resolution sensor and controller logic. 

In the automotive market, the number of processors per vehicle is exploding.  In an effort to keep the numbers down a bit, many companies are combining the duties of several 8- or 16-bit processors into a single 32-bit one.  Additionally, specialized networking standards such as CAN/LIN and Flexray require advanced support from MCUs.  Real-time performance, high-reliability operation, and the ability to handle massive numbers of interrupts are also critical for under-the-hood applications.

MIPS is marketing a wide range of their processor cores for MCU duty, from the light and cheap MIPS32 M4K up through their MIPS32 24K for high-performance applications.  Each of these cores is configurable, so you can get the right balance of performance for your applications, area/cost, and power consumption. 

For many other application areas like industrial control and portable consumer devices, power efficiency is becoming the critical item.  Besides the desire to go “greener,” design teams are also faced with increasing functionality demands on fixed (or even decreasing) power budgets.  MIPS cores have a reputation for very high computational throughput at high power efficiency, so integrating those cores into MCU applications will bring that same efficiency to bear.  On TSMCs 90nm “90G” process, the base core weighs in at 0.04mW/MHz and the full core synthesized for speed at 0.15mW/MHz at 304 and 633 DMIPS respectively.

MIPS also offers a 16-bit ISA encoding of the MIPS32 instruction set – a boon for many microcontroller applications, as it results in a 25% average code size reduction.  This is critical for applications that require small memory footprints or where memory is at a premium for some reason, such as power consumption or cost.  The scaling of code size comes with a much smaller performance penalty, so you can have your cake and eat it too, to some extent.

Industrial applications are also growing in size and complexity.  With larger application software comes the need for more memory, more support infrastructure such as RTOS or embedded OS, and support for high-level language development.  In addition, these applications are requiring more connectivity – particularly through high-speed serial standards like PCIe and through wireless standards like ZigBee. The analog IP side of MIPS’s new MCU family will come in quite handy in those areas.

With MIPS’s long history of success with their 32-bit processor cores and the additional capability afforded by Chipidea’s analog IP, an entry into the 32-bit MCU race is a natural fit.  MIPS’s MCU offering includes their 32-bit processors with support for C/C++ application development, large address space, timers, robust I/O options, and SPI.  On the analog side, Chipidea provides high voltage/current I/O blocks, analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog I/O, audio interfaces, and MACs and PHYs for a variety of I/O standards. 

MIPS brings an already very successful software development and debug suite into the MCU arena, including their own, third-party, and open-source compilers, debuggers, and other IDE elements.  The company already also has a broad RTOS support offering including Ecos, µITRON, Nucleus, and ThreadX, as well as a wide array of middleware and pre-developed software IP.

The MPU is backed up by MIPS non-intrusive probes (courtesy of their FS2 division) called System Navigator products.  System Navigator allows instrumenting your design for on-chip debug of both hardware and software.  The on-chip instrumentation provides something like both a signal generator and a logic analyzer through a single probe that monitors processor and bus activity (plus system-level performance) without impacting performance. 

MIPS MCU initiative is predominantly about going after a new market, as most of the component IP was already part of the company’s expanded portfolio.  The marketing and sales work behind entering a market like 32-bit microcontrollers is substantial, though, and the evolution of MIPS IP products to meet the specific needs of that market over time is inevitable.  With another architecture aggressively competing in the microcontroller space, things should get interesting.  Competition improves the breed, so more players should bring spoils for us all as we take advantage of  these new offerings to create our own competitive advantage.

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