[EE Times] Iconoclast Designers Choose MIPS
Mon, 22 Jul 2002 22:06:49 -0700 (PDT)
"In fact, Caltech says that it actually spun out the same number of
startups in 2001 -- a poor time, needless to say, for new ventures -- as
it did in the boom year of 1999." Oookaaaay...
Iconoclast designers choose MIPS
By Anthony Cataldo
May 28, 2002
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A group of engineers in Calabasas Hills, CA wants to
turn the microprocessor world on its head by doing the unthinkable:
tossing out the clock and letting the signals move about unencumbered.
For those designers, inspired by research conducted at nearby Caltech,
clocks are for wimps.
The Fulcrum Microsystems Inc. design team isn't the first to propose an
asynchronous processor, but president and chief executive officer Robert
Nunn wants to be the first to take a clockless, fire-breathing processor
mainstream. "We really deal with an asynchronous world," he said. "We
only make it synchronous for our own convenience."
This is the kind of stuff that many in the processor industry would
consider lunatic fringe, too weird for conservative embedded-systems
designers. But the young processor company and more than a dozen others
like it are anchored in the mainstream courtesy of the MIPS
instruction-set architecture. More and more, MIPS is becoming the choice
for maverick processor design teams seeking a place at the high end by
fielding unorthodox devices. And if Motorola and IBM in the PowerPC camp
aren't careful, they could see their performance leadership in the
high-end embedded-processor market snatched away by some of these upstarts.
In Austin, Texas, meanwhile, designers at another MIPS house, Intrinsity
Inc., aren't prepared to ditch the clock. But they are putting a new
spin on some old tricks such as giving each gate its own clock and then
letting them overlap. Using such sleight of hand, the company hopes to
soon deliver RISC-based processors that run at an eye-popping 2 GHz and
consume just 10 to 15 watts.
Fulcrum, Intrinsity and their brethren may once have been written off as
interesting experiments, backed by venture capitalists who overlooked
some of the finer details, like software compatibility. What lends them
respectability is MIPS.
Theirs for the asking
One reason young processor companies seem to be flocking to the platform
is that its steward, MIPS Technologies Inc., has no qualms about
licensing the instruction-set architecture (ISA), provided that the
licensee agrees to meet a software-compatibility test suite. By
contrast, processor-core rival ARM Ltd. has granted this privilege to
just two of its many licensees, Intel and Motorola. And so far, the two
PowerPC vendors, IBM Corp. and Motorola Inc., have rebuffed most
requests to license that architecture, with the notable exception being
FPGA vendor Xilinx Inc., which has licensed the 405 PowerPC from IBM.
The MIPS ISA is also one of the simplest forms of
reduced-instruction-set computing around, which tends to make it
attractive to processor designers interested in extending the
architecture. It was this and the wide availability of tools and
software that drew Intrinsity to MIPS, even though the company is aiming
at PowerPC sockets, as evidenced by its decision to adopt the RapidIO
interface instead of HyperTransport, which has been favored by MIPS vendors.
"It's a nice, clean architecture and has an open model that allows us to
add instructions," said Paul Nixon, chief executive officer of
Intrinsity. "You also get all the third-party tools that very easily
fit into our base of platforms."
There was a time when this openness was seen as a liability for MIPS. In
the mid-1990s, before MIPS was spun out from Silicon Graphics Inc., the
instruction set lacked a multiply-add instruction, so some MIPS vendors
took it upon themselves to create their own. The problem was that this
broke many of the development tools, causing headaches for compiler
vendors like Green Hills Software Inc.
"We went to MIPS and said we have 20 different compiler variants and
it's embarrassing," said Craig Franklin, vice president of engineering
at Green Hills and a respected microprocessor industry veteran. Franklin
also wasn't shy about telling MIPS it needed to revamp its embedded
application binary interface. "We went to MIPS and said we've done a
dozen EABIs, let's clean up yours," he said.
MIPS took the advice and wasted little time clamping down on
architectural deviations, observers said. But the MIPS camp still has to
live with a legacy of incompatible chips in the field. "To its credit,
MIPS quickly caught on," said Jim Turley, a microprocessor industry
analyst. "Going forward, MIPS is maintaining good control but they are
still haunted by incompatibility among multiples."
If the biggest risk to the MIPS camp is fragmentation, then the PowerPC
camp has the opposite problem: architectural confinement. Though the
PowerPC architecture carries the cachet of household names Motorola and
IBM, these are essentially the only two companies that provide
PowerPCs. It's not for lack of interest. Rather, the companies have been
reluctant to cede control over the architecture. This could wind up
hurting the PowerPC cause, though.
"To get a PowerPC license is impossible or very expensive," Green Hills'
Franklin said. "Tactically this may have been a mistake. If you're a
Japanese company, all things being equal, you'd rather buy from another
Analyst Turley, too, thinks the PowerPC camp will only stand to gain by
licensing the architecture. "It's all about software compatibility and
tool support. The more you can proliferate the architecture the better
you're going to do," he said. "I don't think Motorola and IBM can
address the entire market by themselves."
There's a chance that this could change. IBM, for its part, is in the
process of planning an expansion strategy for PowerPC that may involve
more licensing. Though it's unlikely the PowerPC camp will ever have the
open licensing model of MIPS Technologies, MIPS processor vendors may
have more than just two competitors to worry about.
"We're certainly not averse to [licensing]," said Lisa Su, director of
PowerPC products at IBM. "The question is, how much do we do and who do
we license to. There are various ways you could go, whether it's a hard
core, soft core or licensing the ISA."
But the fear of architectural fragmentation still looms large. "We know
that if we have different microarchitectures we have to do work on
software compatibility," Su said. "With MIPS there's a degree of
fracturing. That may not always be a big problem, but if you go to other
markets -- like consumer -- it becomes big. Our belief is there is a
Whatever path IBM takes it will act in its own best interest as a chip
provider, not as a company that wants to hawk intellectual
property. This is why the Xilinx licensing deal works for IBM: Big Blue
is not so much interested in the royalties and fees it collects from
Xilinx, but in the dual benefit of widening the appeal of the
architecture and the revenue IBM generates from manufacturing the FPGAs
for Xilinx in its own fabs. "We're not trying to make money off of
licensing," Su said.
Manufacturing is probably one of the most powerful weapons that PowerPC
vendors IBM and Motorola wield. Both have gussied up their high-end
lines with copper interconnect and silicon-on-insulator technology,
still rarities among chip makers. This has helped both companies design
relatively low-power embedded processors running at 1 GHz that are
shipping today. IBM did it using 0.13-micron design rules and a
four-stage pipeline; Motorola is using 0.18-micron design rules and a
The companies say there's more performance headroom in store. "When we
get to 0.13 micron we'll get substantially faster," said Raj Handa,
PowerPC and PowerQuicc marketing manager at Motorola.
Most MIPS processor vendors, by contrast, rely on mainstream foundries
that haven't developed the more-exotic process technologies. And even
though companies like Motorola are shifting more capacity to outside
foundries, they're keeping their special process recipes in-house to
juice up their high-performance devices.
Lacking this capability, most MIPS processor vendors will have little
choice but to come up with dazzling architectural feats to keep up their
chops at the high end. It should become clear in the next year or so how
some of the newer players measure up.
Intrinsity hopes to field its 2-GHz processors by the end of the
year. Fulcrum is shooting for an early 2003 introduction. "We're going
to shock the industry in terms of raw performance and speed-vs.-power
performance," Fulcrum's Nunn said. "We really want to change the way the
world designs semiconductors."
The Pasadena startup machine
By Alison Overholt
There was a time when every dorm room, it seemed, was a startup waiting
to happen. Throughout the 1990s, kids cobbled together business plans
between classes, won funding, and jumped into business. Risk? What risk?
Plunging into a new venture seemed all too easy.
Ah, the fickleness of youth. These days, most of the kids are back in
class. Venture capitalists say that they're seeing precious few
proposals out of MIT, Stanford, and almost every other university, save
one: the California Institute of Technology.
In fact, Caltech says that it actually spun out the same number of
startups in 2001 -- a poor time, needless to say, for new ventures -- as
it did in the boom year of 1999. While startup enthusiasm has faded on
most campuses, Caltech has blossomed into a robust new-company machine.
This didn't happen by accident. During the past seven years, Caltech's
Office of Technology Transfer has carefully developed a strategy for
cultivating commerce. "We focus on nurturing entrepreneurs
scientifically more than other schools do," says Rich Wolfe, the
office's associate director. That is, the university focuses more on the
science itself than on the ensuing commercial opportunity.
That's what grabbed Uri Cummings and Andrew Lines, two PhD students at
Caltech who founded Fulcrum Microsystems in 2000. "There is a pervasive
philosophy at Caltech that no problem is unsolvable," Cummings
says. "There's a focus on scientific ingenuity that is thrilling to be
around. Caltech has so many entrepreneurs because the school doesn't
make it about business or focus on how much money they'll get out of
it. Caltech is a catalyst, moving technology from the university out
into industry, and students are thrilled to be a part of it."
Before starting Fulcrum, Cummings and Lines worked for six years with
Caltech computer-science professor Alain Martin on an
asynchronous-circuit design for semiconductor chips. They ventured into
commercialization while still in the throes of their doctoral program.
That they could afford to do that points to another, more practical
aspect to Caltech's approach. Other universities typically require
entrepreneurs to pay up-front application and licensing fees for the use
of technology patents. But Caltech believes that such payments stifle
entrepreneurship, since young companies usually have little cash to
spare. Instead, the school typically takes equity stakes in startups,
and it defers collection of patent payments until fledgling companies
are financially secure.
For Caltech, it's a long-term bet. "The reality is that universities
rely far more on their endowments than they could on any fees to be
collected from the initial licensing process," Wolfe says. "So we seek a
bite of the apple -- and we hope that if one of these entrepreneurs
founds the next Intel, he'll not only share the equity but also bestow a
gift on the university in remembrance that we took care of him when he
was just getting started."
Cummings and Lines may be in a position to do just that. Fulcrum has won
about $20 million in venture funding amid the toughest venture market in
recent history. Its founders have hired a credible CEO, Bob Nunn, who
formerly ran Vitesse's telecom division, and hired 24 top students from
their alma mater. And they've garnered rave reviews of their chip design
from technology journals.
One thing that Cummings and Lines haven't done yet: finished their
degrees. Officially, both are now "on leave." They may not be back.
High-tech startups fail for only three reasons: stupidity, luck, and greed.
Tip one for would-be entrepreneurs: Avoid stupid and unlucky people. If
you are stupid or have bad luck, don't start a high-tech business.
Tip two for would-be entrepreneurs: Do a product that you want to do,
not one that they want you to do.
Startup founders generally have only ideas, charisma, and equity to work
with. Ideas and charisma are cheap, but equity is expensive. To make a
start-up work, the founder has to divvy out parts of the business at
just the right rate to keep everyone happy until the product is a
success. Give away too much of your company too soon to a venture
capitalist, to your co-workers, or even to yourself, and you risk
running out of distributable shares before the product is done. And that
probably means the product won't be done. Ever.
Tip three for would-be entrepreneurs: Don't take venture funding too soon.
If you are doing a software product, don't take venture money until you
need it to introduce the product. Don't take venture money until you
have used up all of your own money, your mother-in-law's money, and
everything you can borrow.
Bootstrap. Rent, don't buy. Don't hire people to do things you can
contract out because contractors don't require stock options.
As the founder, the man or woman with the grand plan, your function is
to manage the distribution of your own holdings so that you end up with
fewer shares but more wealth.
Tip four for would-be entrepreneurs: Invite me to lunch. I'm a cheap date.
-- Robert X. Cringely, http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20010614.html