Sunday, July 6, 2014

I feel the need for speed …

It is the age old question - what is speed without reliability and even among those who prize speed over all else, questions are being asked. Are the tables about to turn, once again, and what will open up a seat for NonStop?

Few who ever saw the film Top Gun can readily forget the sensory overload of the opening scenes as aircraft are readied to be catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier. And perhaps even fewer still have forgotten one of the most famous lines ever uttered - I feel the need. The need for speed! Adrenalin junkies for sure, but just letting the film embrace you, depositing you right alongside a Top Gun fighter pilot, more effectively communicated the sense of speed than any other film from that era.

Whenever I spend time in our car at weekend track events, it’s inevitable that at some point there will be someone who asks, “How fast does your car go?” The design of road-racing circuits however, isn’t about speed as much as it is about challenging drivers to find the best way around the track. However, it is reliability that ends up being the most appreciated attribute. Simply going very fast, for a brief time, accounts for little over the course of a weekend.

Imagine my surprise than as I turned to the back page of the August 2014 edition of the magazine, Motor Trend, to read Angus MacKenzie’s column, The new fast. “I suspect, when auto historians of the future look back at 2014”, wrote MacKenzie, “they’ll say it was the year ‘hybrid’ became the new fast.” In the world of Formula One racing, the power train in today’s racecars combines a conventional internal combustion engine married to an electric motor. Despite the strange noise they elicit, notes MacKenzie, “I’d happily trade noise for the opportunity to watch the world’s best drivers attempt to tame cars that are clearly a handful.”

For as long as I can recall, every time a new computer system is announced, there’s always a page detailing performance criteria and with each new announcement, the numbers get even more outrageous. During HP CTO Martin Fink’s initial presentation on The Machine, at one point he threw up a slide with the heading, Performance estimates – transaction speed, that was followed with the question, “What could you do with 168 (Giga Updates per second) GPUS? For NonStop users, just breaking the 10,000 tps was an accomplishment that was only recently achieved and yet, now HP is talking up numbers that are mind boggling.

“I feel the need for speed” has been the clarion call of all involved in stock trades. A market that for decades was well-served by NonStop systems, of late the push for even greater speeds has pushed aside NonStop. In August of last year, there were numerous headlines telling of the crashes that had taken place with the most discussed outage being that at NASDAQ. 

According to a report published by Bloomburg on August 26, 2013, Server Crash Spurs 3-Hour NASDAQ Halt as Data Link Lost, “Within two hours, trading stopped in more than 2,000 U.S. stocks. The three-hour shutdown was the latest in a series of failures to disrupt increasingly complicated markets, prompting the Securities and Exchange Commission to push for rules requiring executives to improve the reliability of their technology.”

A few days later, it was The Guardian’s turn to take a look at outages and in the report of August 23, 2013, Nasdaq crash triggers fear of data meltdown - Digital infrastructure exceeding limits of human control, industry experts warn, The Guardian noted how, “On the same day, Microsoft customers began to report email failures. The outage was traced to problems with the Exchange ActiveSync service which serves email to many of the world's smartphones. When Exchange hit a glitch, the sheer volume of phones trying to connect triggered a ripple effect that took three days to control.”

The Guardian then went on to note that on “16 August, many of Google's websites, from email to YouTube to its core search engine, suffered a rare four-minute global meltdown.” Furthermore, to rub even more salt into the wound, it then noted that on, “19 August, Amazon's North American retail site went down for about 49 minutes, with visitors greeted with the word ‘Oops’”. Finally, according to The Guardian, “On 22 August, Apple's iCloud suffered a blackout that affected a small number of its customers but lasted 11 hours.”

Over the course of just a few days – August 16, 19, 22 and 26 – it would seem that reliability all but worked its way out of the world’s major systems. Shouldn’t the question now be how best to harden todays systems? True, there were numerous outages that could be traced back to the networks themselves but when you measure application availability, these too count and systems should be better engineered to recover or at least work around, all situations. It’s no good going fast for just one or two laps when it’s an endurance race – speed always plays second fiddle to reliability.

Inserting NonStop systems into hybrid configurations certainly is one way to address the problem and with plans for NonStop to support the Intel x86 architecture, those businesses committed to only running x86 solutions have little left to complain about. NonStop as a pure software play, as it shortly will become, should be a no-brainer for many of these businesses and with its lengthy history working with stock exchanges worldwide, the opportunity for NonStop to add value in new and innovative ways utilizing hybrid configurations seems a rather obvious choice.

If you accept that speed is of paramount importance to stock exchanges, and handling enormous transaction volumes at blinding speeds key to their survival, it would seem logical to consider the order processing system to be partially handled by a plethora of optimized front-end processors. But then again, in this fast moving environment, could NonStop – even on the x86 architecture – keep up? Again, it would depend upon the overall design and the middleware chosen, but there are steps that can be taken to reinstate the viability of NonStop and it’s something I know several sales folks at NonStop are seriously considering.

In case you missed it, for the first time that I can recall, questions are now being asked about the true value of high-speed trading and whether there is a level playing field. Early reports now becoming available suggest it is anything but a level playing field and yet, I suspect that we cannot turn the clock back when it comes to speed. However, as CNBC television reported in a post of June 30, 2014, Wall Street’s diminishing need for speed, “Speed has created a world of "haves" and "have-nots" in the investing world.” 

Furthermore, aside from potential moves being taken by regulatory agencies, CNBC left it to Intercontinental Exchange Founder and CEO Jeff Sprecher to state the rather obvious, “I think at some point, it's not that important for us to make speed decisions that you and I can't comprehend, so I actually think we've reached, in a weird way, the limit of speed.”

Adding to this sentiment, according to CNBC, “Others argue that the focus shouldn't be on the absolute or even relative levels of speed. Nasdaq OMX CEO Bob Greifeld said the market is more concerned about reliability in the markets … As markets evolve over the next 25 years, there's no doubt that things will continue to get faster, and more complex, but perhaps not as much as one might think. There may come a point where a certain level of fast is simply fast enough, and that time may not be too far off in the distance.”

Could this be the news NonStop sales folks have been waiting to hear for some time? The focus on speed will taper off as interest refocuses on reliability and perhaps even simplicity and with so much discussion about hybrid computers occurring today, could there be a future for NonStop inside Stock Exchanges? Would it be unimaginable for a systems integrator to assemble their own rack or tower where a couple of NonStop processors resided simply to oversee the availability of the entire system and to hold onto that vital data crucial to ensuring trading systems achieve the level of reliability traders now expect?

Furthermore, could you even sell NonStop in this manner and mask its very presence in the hybrid configuration? OmniPayments, Inc. CEO Yash Kapadia is already doing something very similar for financial institutions. Yash equips a tower made up of racks with not just NonStop but a couple of Attala security modules as well as a number of ProLiant boxes running Windows and Linux. According to Yash, “Even after four decades of being in the marketplace, there’s still some residual hesitancy over the presence of NonStop in any proposed solution, and this just takes any conversations about NonStop out of the equation entirely!”

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conceive of something similar being done in support of the world’s stock exchanges. Perhaps not the world’s biggest but certainly in marketplaces apart from New York and London. NonStop still has a presence in Asia and in South America so perhaps the hybrid computer approach will first appear in these markets. No matter where it takes off, or who are among the early adopters, with NonStop in hybrid configurations it’s easy to agree with Motor Trend’s MacKenzie that yes, when we look back at 2014, we’ll all agree that “it was the year ‘hybrid’ became the new fast.”  

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