A decade before IBM launched the world’s first smartphone, a team of Stanford University researchers and Silicon Valley veterans came together to design a microprocessor architecture that would forever change the landscape of computing.
The year was 1986 and the newly-formed company was MIPS Computer Systems Inc. – a small start-up led by current-day Stanford University president John L. Hennessy.
This is the story of MIPS R2000, the first commercially-available microprocessor chipset to implement the MIPS instruction set architecture (ISA) and the first RISC processor widely sold through a profitable licensing business model that has become so widespread today.
Risking it all on RISC
Taking advantage of the vast pool of top talent available in Silicon Valley, Hennessy handpicked an amazing team of chip designers, software engineers, and computer architecture researchers in the hopes of create the ultimate RISC processor. Other principal founders included Skip Stritter, formerly a Motorola technologist, and John Moussouris, who came from IBM.
After spending the better part of 1984 putting the final touches on the MIPS architecture, Hennessy and his team officially announced the R2000 in January 1986 – thirty years ago this month.
The MIPS R2000 CPU was a 32-bit design based on the MIPS I architecture that competed with Motorola 68000 and Intel 80386 microprocessors. At the time, MIPS R2000 also faced stiff competition from several other academic projects aiming to create a viable alternative to the more established CISC CPUs of the day.
In order to find a fast way to market and stay ahead of the competition, the MIPS team had to think outside the box; opening a semiconductor fabrication plant (commonly called a fab or foundry) to manufacture MIPS chips was out of the question, given how prohibitively expensive such an undertaking would be.
In order to ensure that its first design made it into production, the management team wisely decided to adopt a fabless manufacturing model. This strategy implied licensing MIPS CPUs to larger semiconductor vendors who had access to a foundry – and would became the norm for other silicon IP designers (including Imagination Technologies) in the decades that followed.
Early licensees for the MIPS R2000 CPU included Integrated Device Technology (IDT), LSI Logic, Performance Semiconductor, and DEC. Under the initial agreement, the vendors were free to supply the devices to their direct customers although MIPS itself bought some of the early samples to build reference servers and workstations for development purposes.
Analyzing the architecture of the MIPS R2000
MIPS R2000 reached speeds of up to 15 MHz and measured 80 mm2 in silicon area; the processor contained about 110,000 transistors laid out using a 2.0 μm double-metal CMOS process node. To put that into perspective, a MIPS-based CPU manufactured in 2015 using a 28nm process can include 24 to 48 high-frequency, superscalar cores running at up to 2.5 GHz, large and highly-associative L1 and L2 caches, and enormous DRAM bandwidth, representing an incredible increase in frequency speed and a remarkable shrinkage in semiconductor manufacturing processes.
A die shot of the MIPS R2000 CPU (via CPUShack)
The R2000 microprocessor could be configured to run either in big-endian or little-endian mode. For DECstation workstations, the decision was made to run little-endian to maintain compatibility with both the VAX ISA and the growing population of Intel-based PCs; other companies at the time such as Motorola or IBM were proponents of the big-endian format so having support for both types of endianness was a strategic approach to attract a wide customer base.
One of the major new features of the R2000 chip was the fast execution time in the absence of cache misses; it delivered an impressive instruction completion rate of one instruction per ALU cycle in an era where non-RISC microprocessors needed several cycles per instruction. The block diagram below presents the five-stage pipeline design that would become the benchmark for other RISC processors:
Since the MIPS architecture quickly became popular with workstation and server manufacturers, having good floating-point performance was an absolute requirement. To address the need for increased math performance, the engineering team designed an external floating point unit called the R2010 in mid-1987; in addition, a four-stage R2020 write buffer improved performance by permitting the R2000 CPU to write to its write-through data cache without stalling.
See MIPS run
One of the factors that significantly contributed to the rapid adoption of the MIPS architecture was the work done by the compiler team on software optimization. Since the engineers didn’t have access to a real MIPS-based device until late 1986, they built a fast simulator that translated MIPS instructions into native VAX code; this simulator was also used to run UNIX software binaries on the MIPS architecture.
This visual simulator includes the full CPU pipeline, general-purpose registers and memory map, enabling you to quickly write and execute assembly code in real-time on a MIPS R2000 processor.
Where is MIPS now and the road ahead
In 1988, MIPS Computer Systems released the R3000 processor which used a similar overall system design but provided faster speeds by adding memory management and cache facilities. MIPS R3000 was an incredibly popular CPU, finding its way into many workstations and servers from SGI, DEC, Evans & Sutherland as well as the original Sony PlayStation game console.
Over the years, the MIPS architecture continued to develop with the MIPS II, MIPS III, MIPS IV and MIPS V ISAs. There are presently two main ISAs in use (MIPS32 and MIPS64) scaling from the smallest microcontrollers used in embedded applications to many-core, high-performance CPUs used in high-end networking devices or semi-autonomous cars.
Here are a few places where you’ll find MIPS CPUs ticking inside today:
- Tesla Model S cars use a supercomputer chip to implement the autopilot functionality
- Millions of routers and home hubs around the world include MIPS-based Wi-Fi processors from Ikanos (recently acquired by Qualcomm), Lantiq (an Intel company), MediaTek or Qualcomm Atheros
- Smart home devices from LIFX, Belkin or Ubiquiti Networks powered by Qualcomm Atheros or MediaTek Wi-Fi chips, respectively
- Personal computers and servers in China integrate 64-bit MIPS CPUs
- Chromebooks, tablets, mobile hotspots, IoT devices and other portable devices using LTE modems from Altair Semiconductor or Sequans Communications
- Affordable smart watches and other wearable devices use energy-efficient Ingenic chips
- Set-top boxes, media players and digital TVs incorporating Broadcom processors
- Maker-friendly development boards: Digilent chipKIT WiFIRE (Microchip PIC32), Samsung ARTIK 1, the Creator family or any of the many crowdfunded IoT or embedded Linux kits
- Enterprise networking equipment for the data center and wireless infrastructure from Cavium or Broadcom
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