Can the datacenter revitalize MIPS?

New prpl community-driven foundation supports the MIPS architecture in 'datacenter to device' portability.

There was a time when the MIPS processor architecture was considered a bright shining light to the future. I even had a Windows NT MIPS box that had better performance than the x86 computers of the day. But time ran out for the MIPS architecture before it really had a chance to shine, and 20 years later the x86 architecture dominates the PC world.

But with the success of the ARM architecture, a group of vendors is seeing the possibility that a new generation of MIPS can be successful across the board, from mobile devices to the datacenter. And to help drive this potential forward, they have founded “prpl” (pronounced “purple”), a non-profit foundation to support the MIPS architecture in “datacenter to device” portability.

Start-up members include Broadcom, Cavium, Ikanos, Ineda Systems, Ingenic Semiconductor, Lantiq, Nevales Networks, PMC, and Qualcomm, with more to come. And it’s not like the MIPS architecture had been abandoned — with over 3 billion units shipped since the instruction set was introduced in 1985, with the early generation Sony PlayStations being its highest profile product — but it had been primarily in the niche of embedded devices.

MIPS instruction set generations (via Wikimedia Commons)


Prpl looks to change that narrow area of specialization and is starting off by focusing on embedded/IoT, networking, and the datacenter. This will be accomplished by providing, in addition to EOS (MIPS Embedded OS):

  • a complete set of open source libraries, tools, and applications
  • an open source code bank for LLVM, kernel, UEFI, gcc, buildroot, MIPS optimizations/SDK
  • support for Linux distributions such as  Arch Linux, CentOS, Chromium OS, Debian, Fedora,  Ubuntu and Redhat

The MIPS architecture has some unique features in areas such as hardware multi-threading, 32/64-bit compatibility and hardware virtualization, but what made it special in the embedded device world may not translate into the across-the-spectrum devices that this ambitious plan envisions.