IBM's Jeopardy strategy: Divide and conquer

IBM shared a few secrets behind its Jeopardy-challenging Watson computer

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service |  Hardware, IBM

This approach, by itself, would take a single CPU-based machine about two hours to formulate an answer to a single question, Ferrucci said. Here is where the IBM hardware comes in handy. Watson itself is composed of two racks of IBM Power7 System servers, or about 2,500 processor cores, all acting in harmony in a clustered configuration.

Each socket, which can accommodate either six or eight core processors, is able to handle 32 independent threads, said Tom Rosamilia, IBM General Manager of Power and z Systems. Each thread can host a separate search, or some other individual action.

"The great advantage that the hardware provides is the ability to run multi-threaded multicore" processes, Rosamilia said. In other words, running the software across multiple servers dramatically cuts the execution time.

Despite all this hardware muscle and software prowess, Watson's victory on the game floor is anything but assured. Last June, The New York Times reported that the system still had to be improved quite a bit to match fast-thinking Jeopardy aces.

But even as Ferrucci and his team work feverishly to make last-minute adjustments, the lessons they learn will have wider applicability, both for IBM and for the IT industry in general. Ultimately, IBM plans to use this software to build commercial systems that could answer specific questions in selected fields, such as health care, tech support, and the legal field.

"At the end of the day, whether Watson beats Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter is relatively unimportant," wrote Charles King, head of Pund-IT, in a weekly newsletter that the IT analysis firm issues. "However, a computing system demonstrating a form of essentially cognitive capabilities represents a huge technological step that will likely foreshadow profound developments in commercial IT systems and solutions."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is

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