Universities are being granted access to Imagination Technologies' MIPS processors, which will give electronics and computer science students access to real-world central processing units (CPUs).
MIPS, originally an abbreviation of Microprocessor without Interlocked Pipeline Stages, follows technologies from Intel and ARM in being one of the most popular processor architectures.
However, the inner workings of these CPUs have historically been closely guarded secrets. Opening up the MIPS architecture to universities will allow students to explore the innards of a current-generation chip used in existing technology.
Access to the CPUs will be provided under Imagination Technologies' MIPSfpgs university programme, which will see students supplied with a simplified version of the company's MIPS microAptiv CPU core that has been configured specifically for academic use.
In practice, students will be able to download a free package of the CPU's architecture, allowing them to explore the processor's register transfer language (RTL) code to see how it works and to identify its capabilities.
RTL code traditionally goes through a process of obfuscation, where it is made deliberately difficult for humans to understand to prevent the code being reverse engineered or tampered with.
The cores or CPUs used in academia are usually locked down as well, and allow only very simple operating systems to run. But the un-encrypted microAptiv CPU cores allow full operating systems, such as Linux, to be run.
Imagination Technologies hopes to encourage students to develop their own CPUs based on the MIPS architecture, and create "a new wave of innovation" in areas such as the Internet of Things (IoT), mobile devices and automotive technology.
The move has won the support of several academic institutions, including University College London (UCL).
"The exciting thing for us is the ability for students to modify and experiment with every aspect of the computer architecture," said Dr Philip Watts, lecturer in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at UCL.
"We have already had two students carrying out projects on the beta MIPSfpga with further students lined up for the coming academic year."
Imagination Technologies appears to be keen to encourage more IT enthusiasts to get involved in tweaking technology for powering connected devices, having recently released a Raspberry Pi rival with an IoT focus.
Author's view: The MIPSfpga programme would appear to be a philanthropic move by Imagination Technologies, but the company stands to benefit by producing future computer scientists and electrical engineers who are familiar with the architecture of its processors.
Access to existing CPU architectures will help students bypass the need to create their own processors, meaning that any innovative ideas that require the implementation of a tailored CPU could be created much faster.
Meanwhile, familiarity with the MIPS CPUs could see more students building products that have the chip architecture at their core.
This could potentially give Imagination Technologies a helping hand in harnessing and recruiting the talent needed to compete with the likes of ARM and Intel in emerging technology areas such as the IoT.
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