Live by Excel, Die by Excel

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

March 17, 2008

Although Wall Street firms are widely regarded as among the biggest, most cutting-edge spenders in the world of enterprise IT — doing and paying whatever it takes to achieve a competitive advantage — there is one area in particular where performance and efficiency are suffering because of unwillingness to let go of the past.

On the trading floors of even the world’s largest firms, the large numbers (perhaps the majority) of traders are using Microsoft Excel-based applications on their desktops for analytical tasks. However, given that data is growing exponentially in both volume and complexity, Excel is fast becoming a major hindrance to completing these analyses with the speed required to keep ahead of the competition. One might say these trading floors are giving rise to their own cliché: live by Excel, die by Excel.

Geva Perry, chief marketing officer at GigaSpaces, speaks of traders so attached to Excel that abandoning the software is not an option, even though having to wait up to 12 minutes for a simple spreadsheet refresh severely affects their efficiency, and sharing models can be a difficult undertaking in a desktop environment. Their reasons for sticking with Excel, though, are perfectly understandable: traders have spent lots of time and resources building their Excel-based models and, frankly, they like it.

Amnon Raviv, GigaSpaces’ director of strategic alliances, has tales of his own, including a recent fieldtrip to the trading floor at a large Wall Street firm where he witnessed traders running up to six spreadsheets and Excel-based applications on their desktops all day long. Echoing Perry’s take, Raviv said that both the traders and their specialized IT teams know and love Excel, in large part for its highly customizable nature that allows them to create new tools on the fly. In fact, he added, efforts by firms’ central IT teams to implement enterprise-level replacements to Excel often fail because of these affinities.

However, despite the love for Excel on the trading floor, the harsh reality is that Excel just is not designed to handle today’s increasingly complex and data-intensive analytic jobs, and in many cases has become “unworkable.” “Nobody sits down and makes a grand plan of how they’re going to build these Excel applications,” explained Perry. “These guys start building their models, and over time the models grow in complexity and the volumes of data — as they always do — grow and grow and grow, and at some point, they’re basically facing a situation where they’re using a tool, like Microsoft Excel, that really wasn’t meant for that kind of complexity … and volume.”

In an attempt to let traders keep their beloved Excel while simultaneously experiencing major improvements in speed, efficiency and reliability, GigaSpaces concerted with Microsoft to develop a solution that moves Excel server-side. Users of the new tool will benefit from GigaSpaces’ eXtreme Application Platform (XAP), which leverages an in-memory data grid to ensure fast access to critical data; co-locates data and business logic to maximize performance; offers automatic failover and high availability; scales linearly with commodity hardware; and can handle application written in a variety of languages, including Java, .NET and C++.  The end result, said Perry, is that users will interact with Excel like they do a Web browser, but with all the data access and processing taking place on the XAP-powered grid.

Stevan Vidich, an industry architect for Microsoft Financial Services, says the combination of XAP and Excel should be very appealing, as many uses of Excel require low-latency access to large volumes of data, and desktops are rather limited in terms of how much memory and data they can handle. What do you do when you need to access a lot more data, or when you can’t afford to access it from the same database where other users are competing for resources? Now, he noted, an Excel frontend can handle live market data, streaming applications and intensive processing. Since commencing work with GigaSpaces, when Vidich’s clients (which include Bank of America, Barclays, Citi and Merrill Lynch, to name a few) bring up their concerns about how to handle their complex Excel-based jobs — such as “non-trivial, not-so-perfectly-parallel” Monte Carlo simulations — Vidich brings up GigaSpaces.

“[The] perfect customer is one that uses GigaSpaces and has challenges with Excel on the desktop. And, I’ll tell you, that’s just about every GigaSpaces user because in their world, they encounter a situation where the volumes of data are very large,” explains Vidich. “How do you make changes propagate to all of the end users very quickly, and how do you not only process a large volume of data, but how can you do it with very low latency?”

Another selling point is that in addition to working with the presently ubiquitous Excel 2003, GigaSpaces’ solution also is compatible with Excel 2007 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, which can cater to thousands of users. Using Excel Services on SharePoint along with XAP, explains Vidich, calculations carried out on the Sharepoint server and rendered on a user’s desktop inside a browser also integrate with the data grid. And although Excel 2007 does not support Visual Basic, GigaSpaces’ solution will not suffer adverse effects as VBA code is converted during the upgrade process, said GigaSpaces’ Raviv.

Trader productivity is the No. 1 driver here, added Raviv, but “the IT guys are loving the idea that we can give them better return on investment and utilization of their datacenter, of their backend.”

As alluded to above, the potential market for a solution like this is vast. GigaSpaces’ Perry believes it will be a large part of the company’s business, as discussions have shown him that all of GigaSpaces’ financial services customers have “a very strong need” for it. According to Raviv, although the partnership is very recent, GigaSpaces already is in discussions with “at least a dozen” of the top 50 financial services firms (all of whom have problems with Excel), who are in various stages of evaluating the solution. He expects it will be two to three months before a customer is in production with it.

Additionally, Perry is excited about this partnership opening streams to Microsoft’s channel partners — something Vidich assures will happen. He said that a full-blown marketing and customer response campaign will take place at some point, and that although this is a GigaSpaces product, Microsoft will help broker discussions with its customers who are suffering because of their outgunned Excel environments.

If Raviv is correct, the Excel adapter should have legs outside of the financial market, as well. He points to the energy industry — specifically upstream oil & gas and energy trading — as closely mirroring the financial services industry. They also are using desktop-hosted Excel for applications it was not intended to run, such as Monte Carlo and value-of-trade applications, and they also have very large backend grids. The problem, said Raviv, is “they don’t have that glue, the ability to offload the data and the computation from Excel to the grid.” He also cites insurance and corporate treasury as areas that could benefit from this solution.

“This solution will be applicable to just about everyone who is using Excel and has a data challenge,” summarizes Microsoft’s Vidich, “because the trends in escalation of data volumes and complexity of algorithms used to do calculations is not reversible.”

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