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Linux Supercomputer is a Contestant on Jeopardy

I'll Take Linux for $1,000, Alex

  • February 11, 2011
  • By Sean Michael Kerner
Who is smarter, Linux or people? IBM's SUSE Linux powered super-computer Watson faces off against human contestants on the TV game show "Jeopardy".
Sean Michael Kerner

"I'll take Linux for $1,000 Alex."

When IBM's Watson computer faces off against human challengers on the Jeopardy game show next week, they'll also be facing off against Linux.

The IBM Watson supercomputer runs on 10 racks of IBM POWER 750 Servers that can be powered by a number of operating systems including IBM's own AIX Unix operating system as well as Linux. IBM chose Linux and more specifically, Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) as the underlying operating system for Watson.

According to Novell, there was no competitive 'bake-off' or bidding process in order to have SUSE Linux selected as the underlying operating system for Watson.

"The POWER7 platform on which Watson runs is known for its ability to meet high-performance, high-capacity and near-linear scaling," Kerry Kim, Enterprise Linux Solution Manager at Novell told InternetNews.com. "SUSE Linux Enterprise Server is the fastest operating system on IBM POWER7, based on recent SPEC benchmarks, and thus a natural choice for IBM's DeepQA software powering Watson."

Kim noted that Novell and IBM have a decade-old partnership around Linux and high-performance computing (HPC). Novell and IBM have worked closely over many years to tune SLES for high-performance workloads running on 64-bit and mainframe systems.

SLES is also no stranger to the world of supercomputers in general. According to Kim, of the top 10 fastest computers in the world, six run SLES.

The version of SLES that IBM Watson is running has been optimized for the IBM POWER7 platform. Kim noted that the platform includes advanced memory management, Native POSIX Thread Library (NPTL) and advanced multi-pathing and I/O capabilities. While Watson is competing in a live game show environment, IBM is not using a real-time Linux kernel.

"Real-time kernels are really optimized for deterministic workloads and sometimes performance is sacrificed for predictability or determinism," Kim said.

While the Watson supercomputer is noteworthy for its TV presence, the fact that IBM is using SLES as the underlying OS may not necessarily have a direct financial impact on Novell's bottom line. Novell is currently in the process of being acquired by privately-held vendor Attachmate for $2.2 billion.

"There's no significant direct financial value here, although we remain the clear leader in the lucrative Linux HPC market," Kim said. "However, we think the real significance of the news isn't just financial -- it's in helping create the smartest computer on Earth. This is a significant point in the history of computing and it's great that Linux and Novell played a small part."

Kim also sees Watson's Jeopardy challenge as a win for the broader open source development model.

"I think this is a great proof-point for Linux," Kim said. "It's an amazing achievement for the whole community. This can be seen as a confirmation of the superiority of the open development model."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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