August 08, 2011

Looking back on his 40-year career in crime, famed bank robber Willie Sutton reportedly gave this answer to the reporter who asked why he robbed banks: "That's where the money is."

While there is some dispute about the authenticity of this clear-eyed quote, it made sense in the 1950s, when Sutton was arrested. But if he were alive today, Sutton might be waving his Thompson machine gun in a new location: the Wall Street data center.

Once the dead-end warren for housing old emails, expired market data and other bits of corporate effluvia, today's financial data center is where the action is. Forget the exchanges - these days you're more likely to find a listless remote shot of a lonely CNBC reporter on an exchange floor (if you can find an exchange floor) than the hustle and bustle of yesterday.

Instead, the liquidity is in the data centers that hum several miles away from the once-fabled exchanges. As the markets have become increasingly electronic, the liquidity previously found on the exchanges left the cities for data centers found in the suburbs and exurbs - thanks to cheaper power and real estate and locales away from the crosshairs of terrorists.

Today, buy-side firms are exploiting any method to get as close to the liquidity and the market makers as possible. This is where colocation services come in, and they are changing the way the buy side trades and reaches alpha.

The Data Center Is the New Exchange

In the past, investors had to hire brokers who worked inside the exchanges to make deals on their behalf. But in the past decade the financial markets became more electronic, and human traders and brokers largely were replaced by machines that execute trades in milliseconds.

The future had arrived as financial services firms turned their trading strategies into black boxes and placed them next to the exchange matching engines. Instead of a buyer shouting bids into the ear of the seller in a trading pit, machines were programmed to do the bidding.

In today's fast moving, highly fragmented market, investors want to connect to multiple end points, explains Stewart Orrell, director of global financial services for Equinix, a global data center operator and colocation services provider that grew out of the technology boom in Silicon Valley in the 1990s.

"In the financial markets and especially in times of fragmentation, they want to connect to different end points, whether it is different asset classes, service providers or network providers," he says. "They want access to exchange traffic in a very efficient and very low-latency way as well."

And buy-side firms no longer have to confront the challenge of building and maintaining their own data centers in order to achieve this low-latency connectivity.

By using third-party colocation offerings, buy-side firms now can rent space inside a data center to be close to the action. For smaller investment firms - and hedge funds usually boast fewer than a dozen traders - this is a game-changing option.

"The proximity play is very attractive to hedge fund clients as well as those interested in microsecond access," says Bill Ruvo, global business manager, real-time solutions, at Thomson Reuters, which offers low-latency market data solutions. "Technology plays a very key role by normalizing content into usable protocols."

And just as all politics is local, so too are a few asset classes. In today's market there are a bevy of data centers in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area that cater to cash equities, just like the old days of the New York Stock Exchange.

Meanwhile, there is a ring of data centers in Chicago that are focused primarily on matching engines and colocation services for commodities and futures options, which are largely traded in the Windy City. A number of data center firms - including Equinix, Savvis and Telx - are located in the Cermak Building on 350 East Cermak Road in Chicago to be "close to the data centers and the matching engines for CME and ICE on the utures side," says Jeffrey Otten, global head of sales for Selerity, a provider of lowlatency event news. And these clusters of asset class-specific data centers are not unique to the U.S. markets, he notes.

Similar clusters of data centers that focus on specific asset classes reside in London outside the London Stock Exchange and in Frankfurt near the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, according to Otten.