IBM's Watson could get even smarter with Power8 chip

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IBM’s “Watson” technology, released in 2009, put a face on what the massive processing power of a mainframe could mean in the real world. Now, with IBM’s new Power8 chip, Watson coud grow even smarter.

IBM launched Watson on its Power7 chip, according to Jeff Steucheli, with IBM’s Power team, during a presentation Monday at the Hot Chips conference Monday at Stanford University. But according to IBM’s own internal metrics, the Power8 is between two and three times faster than the Power7, launched in 2010. (An intermediary chip, the Power7+, was launched in 2012.)

IBM maintains a specialized line of chips, known as the Power line. Most of the supercomputing and server world have moved to Intel’s Xeon processor, however, making Watson both an important technical as well as marketing tool to show off the power of Power.

Watson, of course, trounced the top players in the TV quiz show, Jeopardy. Watson was later adapted for front-end customer-service applications, financial analysis, and even has its sights set on smartphones.

Put simply, Watson was little more than a specialized database connected to a front-end interface that could understand speech in a natural-language context. With Power8, IBM has more than doubled the sustained memory bandwidth from the Power7 and Power7+, to 230 GB/s, as well as I/O speed, to 48 GB/s. Put another way, Watson’s ability to look up and respond to information has more than doubled as well.

“You can imagine if you have 3x the performance of a Power7, you can do some very interesting things,” Steucheli said.

Recently, IBM announced its OpenPower initiative, where it will license the Power chips and co-develop an ecosystem around the Power architecture with companies like Google, Nvidia, and Mellanox. Up until now, IBM primarily used the Power design in its own servers. This new initiative makes it possible for cloud services and their technology providers to redesign the chips and circuit boards where computing is done, optimizing the interactions of microprocessors, memory, networking, data storage and other components, IBM executives said.

“Watson wasn’t a traditional workload for us,” Steucheli said. “We’d like to find more of these opportunities.”

IBM hasn’t said when the Power8 will ship. “But I have a processor here,” Steucheli said Monday. “And we have a lab full of these things.”

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