Supercomputer work helps IBM top patent list

Weeks after the latest Blue Gene supercomputer shipped out from Rochester, IBM has topped the U.S. patent list for the 19th year in a row.

Big Blue tallied a whopping 6,180 patents issued in 2011. About 500 of those patents originated in Rochester.

IBM substantially outdistanced its nearest corporate competitors. Samsung came in at second with 4,895 patents, followed by Canon at 2,822.

A trio of local IBM software engineers working on the latest generation of supercomputers were not surprised by their company's continued dominance in patents.

"The cool thing about working on something as advanced like Blue Gene the ideas come naturally… We're always trying to do things that no one has done," says Brian Smith. "You've got to think of new ways to do things. The old ways just don't apply anymore."


And those new solutions result in patents.

Smith, Mike Blocksome and Charles Archer have worked on about 175 patents during their careers at IBM.

"This whole cycle generates patents, from the back and forth between software and hardware…finding ways to work around problems," says Blocksome.

A shiny example of IBM's patent-generating innovation left Rochester in mid-December. The first of 96 computing racks of the Blue Gene/ Q computer called Sequioa were sent on their way to the U.S. Department of Energy at the Argonne National Laboratory at Argonne, Ill.

Supercomputers, like the Blue Genes, are usually ranked like sports cars — by their speed.  But like sports cars, they consume a lot of energy to be that fast.

Figuring out how computers can use power more efficiently is the focus on the latest patent issued to Smith, Blocksome and Archer.

"The big supercomputers use a lot of power or gigaflops per watt. We have do things at software level to coordinate that," says Smith.

The team worked out a method to reduce power requirements when the machine is not computing. During the communication phases, it doesn't need as much energy.


This innovation is not in use yet in any IBM products, though it is patented.

"Our goal is to make something cutting edge, start using it in something huge like Blue Gene and then it can trickle down small machines to laptops," says Archer.

That's the way it works at IBM when it comes to patents.

"The support comes from the top of the company on down…The path could be way harder for us… We are encouraged on multiple fronts," says Archer. "Seeing that we are number one just confirms that it is actually working."

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