Going to Extremes for a Competitive Edge

By Derrick Harris

March 31, 2008

There was quite a bit of worthwhile news and announcements last week, but the most intriguing to me had to be the announcement that Platform Computing and IBM are working together on a solution combining Platform’s Symphony 4 middleware and IBM’s Cell Broadband Engine-based BladeCenters. What struck me most, I guess, are the lengths to which financial institutions are willing to go in order to gain even the slightest competitive advantage.

We’ve tackled this subject from about every conceivable angle in the past year or so — from high-performance computing middleware to high-speed data access to low-latency InfiniBand interconnects — but this solution takes the quest for a competitive edge to new heights. “The whole objective is to be able to enable application groups to accelerate even further some of the key mathematical calculations that are going on in many of their models,” says Martin Harris, Platform’s financial services market director. “This acceleration capability enables these customers to take full advantage of the speed provided by the Cell, within their existing architectures, to their different lines of business.”

Portfolio-simulation applications, Harris told me, especially around pricing and risk analytics, are a prime example of how this Symphony-Cell solution delivers its edge. Within those processes, he explained, “there are typically some pretty hardcore mathematical calculations that are going on.” These specific portions of the business logic might perform better on the Cell processors, so developers will tweak the code (using Platform’s free Symphony Developer Edition and IBM’s software development kit for Cell) to offload these specific tasks to the Cell chips, while the rest of the job will continue to run on the rest of the Symphony-enabled architecture. Although Symphony 4 has a theoretical limit of 20,000 nodes, Harris acknowledges that creating massive Cell-based grids is not the intent of this solution. “This certainly is not a ‘rip and replace,’” he stated. “This is an optimization for competitive advantage.”

The number of accelerator hardware products on the marker illustrates that companies — especially large investment banks — are actively seeking an edge, said Harris, and that is what is driving the partnership between Platform and IBM. “We’re just enabling them to get that additional speed over their competitors and gain that competitive edge,” he added.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the reasoning behind both this joint solution and financial institutions’ hankerings for it. My shock comes mainly from the idea that running applications on a Symphony-powered, 18-core BladeCenter (or BladeCenters) simply does not deliver enough speed for some banks. Of course, I probably shouldn’t be surprised, as many leading banks are currently running such cutting-edge, finely tuned datacenters, there is little else to do but try to squeeze every last drop of performance out of them. Much like Tiger Woods, for example, altering his hip rotation during his swing by a few degrees to improve his drive accuracy by maybe a single percentage point, while the rest of us are still working to hit the fairway consistently while delivering something resembling respectable distance, these institutions are just head-and-shoulders above their less-technologically-savvy peers. While some IT departments are still trying to figure out dynamic allocation, and others are still coming around on distributed computing, these banks are offloading specific process within specific applications to specific processors in specific blades. Wow.

Speaking of resource allocation, be sure to check out my article on Pillar Data Systems’ “application-aware storage,” which brings to the application-storage relationship what middleware products like Symphony bring to the application-CPU relationship. As for the rest of this week’s issue, some of the aforementioned worthwhile announcements include: “Medical Center Handles HIPAA with Bycast, IBM Grid Solutions”; “NSF Teams w/ Google, IBM for Academic ‘Cloud’ Access”; “Digipede Launches Version 2.1”; “InforSense Delivers Analytical Workflow Platform as VM”; and “Novell to Buy PlateSpin.”

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Comments about GRIDtoday are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Derrick Harris, at [email protected].

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