B&C: Hi Jen. Hi Alexandru. First of all, thank you for this interview. Can you explain to our readers what are your positions and roles at Imagination Technologies?
Jen: I am director of technology communications for Imagination. I joined the company with the acquisition of MIPS Technologies in 2013. I am responsible for driving outbound communications around all of our core IP families, including MIPS, PowerVR and Ensigma, as well as our IP platforms that combine these technologies.
Alex: Hello! I’m a senior marketing specialist for Imagination. I have a background in computer architecture and hardware, having worked briefly as a CPU engineer before switching to a position in marketing communications. Some of my main responsibilities include handling technology media relations, writing articles for our blog, driving co-marketing opportunities with partners and customers, cultivating and educating ambassadors for Imagination, and managing day-to-day social media programs. I have also recently been involved with our Creator microcomputer programme and open source initiatives.
B&C: Imagination Technologies is well known for its PowerVR GPUs; also, it is active in many markets with other important products. Could you briefly illustrate your business areas?
Alex: From an operational point of view, Imagination is divided in five main business and engineering units. This includes our hardware IP products with MIPS CPUs, PowerVR multimedia, and Ensigma connectivity. We also have the IMGworks and IMGsystems groups. IMGworks is focused on supporting customers’ designs, and IMGsystems develops software and other value-added IP offerings including our FlowCloud device-to-cloud technology, FlowTalk VoIP solutions and more. Together, these units target a wide array of markets including consumer multimedia electronics (this includes mobile, wearables and other similar devices), IoT, automotive, networking and several emerging markets such as computer vision, virtual and augmented reality, healthcare, security and smart power metering.
B&C: Talking about PowerVR GPUs, we can see that your market share (Mobile Related) is shrinking quickly: it was 52% during the 1H12, dropping to 37,6% in the 1H13 and 29,1% in the 3Q14. Your GPUs are very good, probably the best in this sector, but the SoC manufacturers seem to prefer cheap IP licenses (e.g. Vivante or ARM). What will your strategy be to keep the leadership? Also, you offer a great design optimization kit to help your customers to achieve the best implementation in the shortest time… so, could we say it's just a matter of prices?
Jen: PowerVR GPUs are superior from a technology standpoint, for both graphics and GPU compute applications. We continue to build on this technology leadership at the high end, with GPUs that are delivering up to near 1.5 teraFLOPS performance along with the power efficiency we are known for. We are also deepening our focus on cost-sensitive entry-level designs where customers are concerned primarily about silicon area, power consumption and bandwidth usage. We believe that GPUs like those in our Series6XE and Series7XE families will increase our foothold in the entry-level market as we’re enabling customers to create products with the best possible GUI and browser performance for cost-sensitive applications. We already have signed a number of deals with suppliers focused on that segment. An example is the latest Rockchip RK3368 64-bit SoC which uses a Series6XE GPU.
B&C: Your newer PowerVR GPUs support the latest API of Khronos Group, “Vulkan”, and you are advertising this feature. The recent “Gnome Horde” demo shows how powerful a Mobile GPU could be thanks to a “close to metal” API like this. What are your main goals with the latest PowerVR GPUs? Do you plan to enter either the Virtual Reality market or the console market? Is there something in the air? Also, what do you think about the DirectX 12?
Alex: All of our PowerVR Rogue GPUs support Vulkan. At MWC 2015, I detailed our new PowerVR GT7900 super-GPU - a high-end, 16-cluster graphics processor from our Series7XT family. During my exposé, I mentioned we’ve built a roadmap of Series7 GPUs that scale from quarter-cluster to 16-cluster configurations, offering the widest choice of GPUs in the mobile and embedded graphics market. We have already seen eight cluster configurations used in mobile devices and we expect this trend to continue, especially since the new 14 and 16 nanometer process nodes offer significant improvements in performance, power and area. VR is a new segment that is still trying to define a set of requirements for mobile rendering. For desktop devices, you’re looking at resolutions such as 2160×1200 at 90Hz split over dual displays. That translates to approximately 3x the GPU power of 1080p rendering at 60fps which might be difficult to achieve using traditional mobile parts. However, we believe our new PowerVR Wizard GPUs can help by providing a hybrid rendering model where central parts of the scene are ray traced in real time while outer elements or images in the background are rendered using the traditional rasterized techniques. In fact, the co-founder of id Software and current CTO of Oculus declared himself very happy with the release of our ray tracing technology, viewing it as a solid solution for mobile VR.DirectX 12 is part of a new wave of exciting low level APIs, together with Mantle and Vulkan. We intend to fully support the feature levels that are relevant for our target markets and important to our customers.
B&C: Imagination Technologies is operative not only in the consumer market, but in the professional market too. You have acquired Caustic Graphics during the 2010 to enter the professional graphics market and, two years ago, you have released two boards named “Caustic 2” R2500 and R2100. Unfortunately, these cards are MIA (Missing In Action), and the Caustic Store is now offline, so we can image these products are no longer available. What went wrong with it?
Alex: As an IP provider, the primary motivation behind the Caustic acquisition was the obvious synergy between their IP and our PowerVR GPU architecture. We are very proud of the work we’ve done with the Caustic Series2 ray tracing cards. This was an initiative focused around our Visualizer project which used ray tracing to accelerate rendering for a range of CAD tools. Even though the project went well, we decided to focus our resources on the completion of the PowerVR Wizard GPU designs, which represent a true disruptor in graphics for a wide range of markets. The PowerVR Wizard architecture provides a completely new paradigm for mobile and embedded graphics, combining the traditional rasterized pipeline with a ray tracing engine capable of rendering photorealistic computer-generated graphics in real time.
B&C: In the past, Intel used to integrate your GPU IPs in their CPUs (especially ATOM CPUs) and Apple is still doing it nowadays. Could you explain us why Intel has abandoned your GPUs? Also, we can see that Apple is using a semi-custom version of your latest PowerVR 6th Gen in the A8 and A8X SoCs: how deep is your collaboration with Apple present days?
Alex: Intel maintains a dual-sourcing strategy for GPUs in mobile and embedded parts. Several Atom SoCs using PowerVR GPUs are shipping today in multiple smartphones and tablets from leading OEMs including Asus, Dell, and Lenovo. We continue to have a strong relationship with both Intel and Apple.
B&C: Actually you are pushing very hard on the ISA MIPS, but it is still behind ARM (12 bn), Tensilica (2 bn) and ARC (1.5 bn) in term of sold units, according to ‘14 data. You have unveiled the Warrior core just 2 years ago, but there aren't news about their use in new Enterprise or Embedded products. Also, some time ago Tom's Hardware UK wrote about the use of MIPS SoCs in Google’s Chromebooks: “Imagination hasn't yet announced the next generation of its high-end MIPS64-based CPU cores for mobile, which could also be used for higher-performance Chromebooks. Those CPUs should offer better competition to ARM's Cortex A57 or Qualcomm's Kryos core. Just how much competition will also depend on the process node Imagination's partners will use”. Android L is MIPS compatible, but there are no MIPS smartphones available on the market. Your CEO said: “I have to stress that the strategy with MIPS isn't short term. I have to stress that the strategy with MIPS isn't short term”. However, after 2 years, the situation seems not to be so rosy. What is your strategy with MIPS? What is your main target (Consumer, Embedded, Enterprise)? What are the strong points of your offer? After the deal with Green Hill Software, did you sign any other important partnership agreement?
Jen: There are several customers already using MIPS Warrior CPUs for their chips. Announced designs include those from Baikal Electronics, Altair Semiconductor, Microchip Technology, Mobileye, and Standing Egg. We are also seeing continued strong shipments of our previous generations of CPUs across applications from microcontrollers to high-end networking chips from many leading semiconductor companies. When Imagination acquired MIPS, we said that our strategy would have three phases. Phase one focused on ensuring that existing customers were satisfied with the roadmap and our market share did not suffer any major fluctuation; this phase is now complete and we are moving ahead on new designs with many long-time MIPS licensees.
This latter accomplishment is central to the second phase, which is focused on achieving new design wins within our existing customer base. I’ve already mentioned several examples of MIPS Warrior CPUs being used by multiple vendors in markets like networking, embedded and automotive.
The third phase is the most disruptive and will have a long-term effect on our business. This is where we plan to enter new markets such as mobile, IoT and enterprise 64-bit computing. The strong roadmap of CPU technology is the foundation for this. We now have highly competitive CPUs across the range, from M-class for the entry level, I-class for the mid-range, and P-class for the high end. This includes both 32-bit and 64-bit CPUs, and features unique, differentiating technologies across the range, including our OmniShield multi-domain security. We are also doing interesting things on the tools side, including an entirely new debug environment that enables customers to debug multicluster designers as well as designs that have CPUs from more than one IP vendor. We are also continuing to grow the ecosystem around MIPS. Having Android and Chrome OS support and establishing long-term partnerships around our open source prpl Foundation are some of the many other strategic steps we have undertaken to ensure that everything is set in place for this third phase.
B&C: Samsung has created the IoT platform Artik1 based on a MIPS MicroAptiv CPU. On your blog we can read: “MIPS microAptiv CPUs are based on an elegant RISC architecture which achieves better performance at lower frequencies and in a smaller area compared to competing solutions. For embedded and microcontroller-type applications, MIPS microAptiv offers class-leading performance: 1.7 DMIPS/MHz and 3.6 CoreMark/Mhz”. It seems that MIPS could be a major player in the IoT market; yet we have to see products from big names based on your ISA. What are your main partners present days? Could you tell us something about the incoming MIPS-based products?
Alex: We were delighted that Samsung chose a MIPS-based processor for the Artik 1 platform.We continue to see traction for MIPS in IoT. Our biggest customer in that space is Microchip, a company that has seen a 2x growth in 32-bit microcontroller shipments in the last year. The latest PIC32MZ EF family uses a MIPS M5150 CPU clocked at 200MHz and offering 330 DMIPS of performance.
Jen: Other companies using MIPS in IoT include Standing Egg, a new company creating sensor hubs; Ineda who is creating wearable processing units (WPUs); Ingenic who has multiple generations of its Newton platform for wearable and smart devices; Altair Semiconductor who has LTE Cat 0 chips for IoT, Sequans Communications who is making LTE platforms for IoT, and the list goes on. These companies and others are using MIPS because of our performance, area and power benefits for these applications, as well as for the unique differentiators that MIPS offers, including hardware virtualization in our entry-level M-class cores, which enhances security and reliability.
B&C: The Raspberry Pi has been one of the major factors of ARM success because it has permitted the birth of many ARM programmers, GNU/Linux software and many school projects based on ARM (e.g. Wolfram & Mathematica). Thanks to this, ARM is a well know architecture among the younger programmers and software engineers, and now it can aim for the Enterprise market. You have recently commercialized your own MIPS developer board, the CI20, to do the same. How is your strategy going?
Alex: Creator Ci20 was the first board to bring together MIPS and PowerVR in a platform that was easily accessible to developers and we are very proud of the work we’ve done there. Since the initial announcement, we have released an updated version which improves Wi-Fi signal strength and makes the board easier to mount in cases. On the software side, we’re putting the last touches on a Linux 3.18 kernel for Debian 8. We have seen some exciting partnerships and projects resulting from the launch of Creator Ci20, including a port of the Cocos2d-x game engine. In the future, we plan to expand our Creator family to include both embedded and high-performance parts.
B&C: Today the EDA companies are trying to offer the easiest and most powerful tools to create custom chips using IPs from many vendors. Indeed, the custom and semi-custom markets are growing very fast, and we see that you are working hard to offer the best support to your costumers (e.g. close collaboration with TSMC). What are the main challenges in this sector? What is your relationship with the EDA companies?
Jen: Our customers across all markets are challenged to meet their power, performance and area, or PPA, targets in increasingly small windows of time.
We work with all of the leading EDA suppliers, including Cadence, Mentor and Synopsys, as well as many of the smaller tools providers in this space, to help mutual customers address these challenges.
One of our EDA collaborations focuses on producing a series of design optimization kits, or DOKs, designed to accelerate customers’ time-to-market and reduce power and area through a package of co-developed core IP and physical IP.
We also work with the key foundries and library vendors like TSMC. Many of our customers use TSMC’s foundry capabilities and libraries, so we work with them strategically to help customers realize the best possible designs, optimizing PPA and other key parameters. We are also working with TSMC to develop a series of advanced IP subsystems for IoT to accelerate customers’ time to market and simplify their design process.
B&C: We can see that your Ensigma communications IP portfolio delivers comprehensive solutions for all forms of communications and networking, but we don't know much about your customers in this market. What are your main customers? What kind of products are made using the Ensigma IPs? How important is this kind of product in your business?
Alex: Ensigma is a powerful programmable connectivity architecture that can be used for TV and radio demodulation or wireless communications. We offer Ensigma RPUs (radio connectivity processors) in ultra-low power configurations through our Whisper line, and high performance through the Explorer family. An exciting product to mention here is the Toshiba TZ5000 series which uses an Ensigma RPU C4500 at the heart of a high-speed 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO baseband engine. TZ5000 application processors with graphics/video capability also include PowerVR graphics and video from Imagination, representing a growing trend of customers licensing more than one product from us for a new chip.
More and more of our licensees, from Tier 1 to specialist product suppliers, are showing intense interest in our latest unique Ensigma RPUs across a range of markets, as they see the benefits of integrating highly efficient and advanced communications processing on-chip. Recent customers include Ineda Systems and the Toumaz Group as well as multiple fabless companies from Korea and China including Rockchip.
We have stated for several years that for many applications, ultimately RPUs will go on-chip just as GPUs have done, and now we’re see this trend being acknowledged by our partners across a broadening range of markets. Given the increasingly advanced and complex communications requirements of consumer, industrial and automotive products, the Ensigma RPU is a unique solution ideally suited today’s highly competitive markets.
B&C: In your site we can read: “OmniShield enables next-generation SoC security. Use models and services are evolving across a wide range of connected products such as IoT, gateway routers, IPTVs, mobile devices, automotive systems and other connected devices. These devices must increasingly be designed to support numerous unique applications, various content sources, and in-the-field software updates from service providers and operators, all while ensuring privacy and data protection. With this evolution comes the need for a new security approach to ensure protection for OEM products and operator services. OmniShield addresses this need, designed to provide the industry’s most scalable and secure solutions for protection of next-generation SoCs. Today’s embedded security approaches are CPU centric, binary (one secure zone / one non-secure zone) and are complex to implement. These solutions won’t scale to address the complex types of applications and services being enabled by next-generation connected devices and the cloud”. Is it essential to integrate this technology in consumer products, or is it just a technology useful to business customers?
Jen: We are seeing benefits and traction for OmniShield multi-domain security across numerous applications from IoT to connected home to automotive and beyond. Ideally this technology will be invisible to consumers who just want to know that their data is secure and privacy intact. OmniShield provides a foundation on which chip makers can build the trusted SoCs at the heart of secure OEM products, and third parties can run their applications and services in isolation.
B&C: Imagination Technologies is a limited company, so it means that you have to do a good share of profits to satisfy the investors. This need could be a problem when the business is slow, because the companies are usually inclined to cut the R&D expenditures. What is Imagination's opinion about this statement? Are you a slave of your investors, or do you think that R&D investments are inescapable?
Alex: Imagination is a primarily an IP business, not a semiconductor vendor or OEM. From that perspective, you can think of the R&D and engineering groups as our factory. If we cut R&D costs, we stop production which quickly impacts our business. Therefore, the key element to managing a successful IP business is focusing on high-volume, high-revenue markets and anticipating trends. For example, Imagination was the first company to realize that graphics, video and communications processors needed to be integrated on chip for the SoC market to exist. We then mapped this trend to our IP offerings and the results have been remarkable. .
To address the second part of your question, our major investors understand the cyclical nature of the markets we operate in and in our customer base, so we don’t feel a direct pressure from our investors to reduce R&D costs.
B&C: Last but not the least, MIPS was the main ISA in the IT market during '90: MIPS Magnum Workstations, SGI MIPS Workstations, R3000A processor (used in the first Playstation), etc. Unfortunately, today it is a marginal ISA. To be honest, do you think MIPS can move back to the ancient splendors?
Alex: If you look at the software ecosystem, MIPS is one of the three architectures officially supported by Android and Chrome OS, and we are one of the leading contributors to the main Linux tree. If you study our customer base, you see big names like Broadcom, MediaTek, Microchip and Qualcomm using MIPS in embedded applications. Finally, we’ve had some very successful quarters in terms of shipments so there are signs that the tide is turning in our favor. The industry is responding positively to the emergence of a true competitor in the CPU IP space and you will see more and more announcements from major companies using MIPS that will change this skewed perception.
Jen: MIPS success is central to Imagination’s business. With our strong technology roadmap, compelling technology differentiators and an expanding ecosystem, we are well positioned for success. There is a lot of love out there in the industry for MIPS, and customers want to see MIPS not only survive, but thrive. We’re quite excited for the next chapter in the long and storied life of MIPS.
B&C: Thank you Jen and Alexandru, it has been a pleasure talking with you!
Alex: Thank you for the opportunity!
Jen: Nice talking to you as well. Thanks.