Bad News on Wall Street Doesn’t Diminish the Need for Speed

By Dennis Barker

September 22, 2008

Considering the ongoing crisis in the financial markets, you might expect the mood at a gathering of people who make their living in the financial services industry to be kind of glum. Or, at least, very, very anxious.

Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy was on hand at the Roosevelt Hotel.Not so at today’s HPC on Wall Street conference in New York. On the local misery index, where 1 equals “Yankees lose” and 10 is “Yankees lose to Red Sox,” the mood here felt like about a 3. Of course, had this been a confab of brokers and traders, that number probably would be higher.

That’s not to say recent headlines weren’t on people’s minds. In just about every panel discussion or one-on-one conversation, there were references made to “the market chaos” or “last week’s turmoil.”

But this crowd of technology users and technology providers appeared to be thinking more about speed: faster transactions, faster data feeds, faster analysis, faster reporting, faster applications. You just can’t get enough. As Peter Lankford, director of the Securities Technology Analysis Center (STAC), put it: “We used to trade in hundreds of milliseconds. Now we’re at the point where tens of milliseconds really matters. Requirements keep intensifying.”

It seemed like every other vendor was offering a cure for latency. Hardware to accelerate floating-point operations, messaging, storage, and the ticking of stock data was in relative abundance. Naturally the whole theme is about speeding up, but there seemed to be a proliferation of companies building accelerators out of ASICs and FPGAs. (More on that in a later report.)

Windows on Wall Street

Microsoft VP Bill Laing delivered the opening keynote to talk about how financial firms need to reduce risk and increase gains. Everyone seemed to be in agreement on this. That will require something like a rebuilding of the datacenter or at least some changes to the HPC infrastructure. Rumors that local comedian Jerry Seinfeld would show up to promote the big product of the day —  Windows HPC Server 2008 — proved totally untrue, but Laing did a good job summarizing the new features and benefits, and a fellow from Lloyd’s TSB of London backed him up with real-world results. (More on that later, too.) The upshot of Microsoft’s push is that HPC isn’t just right for Wall Street; it’s coming to Main Street too.

Random Bits

The software guys took some hits at several panel discussions. Apparently, it’s the lack of parallel programming smarts that’s holding up progress. “We need more people who know parallelism,” said one panelist. The inability of developers to take advantage of all these cores being thrust upon us by Intel and other chip vendor was a concern voiced multiple times.

With the risky situation in the markets, risk analysis was a hot topic. One panelist said next year’s conference should be called Risk Management on Wall Street.

An ominous effect of a market downturn and upheaval in financial services was voiced by a guy from IBM’s brainiac division down in Raleigh, North Carolina: “There could be a slowdown in innovation because Wall Street drives much of the research and advances in high performance, low latency, security, high-speed networking, and so on.”

Maybe the most obvious impact of the recent Wall Street news was on the roster of speakers. As one conference organizer said, “A few speakers are missing because their companies no longer exist.”

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