Intel and AMD recently came out with quad-core semiconductor chips that pack the brains and processing power of four computers onto a single piece of silicon. According to the manufacturers, their new Xeon 7300 and Barcelona chips can handle much more work than can dual-core chips. The new chips are being packaged into servers from the major manufacturers (HP, Sun, IBM, Dell) that should be available in early 2008.
With Wall Street's insatiable demand for more compute cycles -- to handle automated trading, process market data and perform simulations, for example -- this is good news. "The particular benefit will be in accelerating trades, moving higher volumes of data faster, making faster decisions, and allowing more trading applications to access more memory and higher speeds," according to Rick Jacobsen, Intel's marketing director for the financial services sector.
But there's a catch. To reap the performance improvements of quad-core processors, applications that weren't written to run on multicore processors will need to be parallelized -- rewritten such that different threads of the program can run simultaneously on the different processors. "Not all applications today are built for true multithreading," says Thomas Chippas, head of Autobahn Equity North America, Deutsche Bank.
This is a widespread issue. "There are a lot of applications on Wall Street, in-house and vendor software programs, that still have a single-threaded bottleneck -- either they're not multithreaded or they're limited by the capacity of one of those threads," says Peter Lankford, director of the Securities Technology Analysis Center (STAC).
"There's an assumption that applications can take advantage of all these cores, and that's often not true," adds Gartner analyst John Enck. "If you have a conventional application that was written 10 years ago, ... a quad core does nothing for you."
But there is a definite upside to quad core. In benchmarking of its Barcelona chip using Spec.org standards, AMD reportedly has achieved 57 percent performance improvements for integer calculations -- basic math -- compared to dual cores. In floating point math, such as that used for algorithmic trading, the quad-core chips run about 49 percent faster than dual-core. "This is akin to buying a car with a sticker that tells you what your gas mileage will be," explains John Fruehe, worldwide market development manager for server and workstation products at AMD. "It's probably going to get really close to that, but you'll never get exactly 18 miles per gallon. ... There's going to be some other variable."
Reuters, whose Reuters Market Data System (RMDS) is installed at 2,600 sites, has participated in a number of tests with Intel's Caneland four-way, quad-core server platform (16 processors in all) and found that it doubled the rate of market updates -- to 2.8 million per second through a single source and 2.2 million per second through a point-to-point server. "They've produced some amazing numbers running our standard software ... using these chips," relates Mike Parlapiano, EVP of Reuters Information Management Solutions.
Need for Rewrites
In many cases, though, application rewrites will be required to achieve such results. In the case of off-the-shelf programs, such work is the software manufacturer's responsibility. Some vendors that serve Wall Street, including Microsoft and Reuters, are working to optimize their programs to work with quad-core chips. Microsoft executives say the next version of Excel Services, due out in early 2008, most likely will be quad-core ready, and the next version of Visual Studio should help developers build multithreaded programs.
The major operating systems used on Wall Street -- including Linux, Windows and Solaris -- already are parallelized. Some of the basic platforms on which applications are built -- such as Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server or IBM DB2 databases -- are being analyzed to see how well they can deal with that many processors. And, according to experts, applications that have been designed to work with dual-core processors should adjust easily to quad-core processing. Further, modern applications that use a services-oriented architecture use modular code that's easily adapted to a multicore environment.
But, "Not every application or process has a type of logic that can take advantage in itself of this multicore architecture," Reuters' Parlapiano says. He explains that although the RMDS software doesn't lend itself to parallelization, it has been tuned to quad core. Parlapiano notes that to optimize the RMDS software for the STAC tests, multiple copies of the same process were run on a single server.
The real challenge will be modifying old, home-grown applications to run on quad-core processors. "We've gone from single core to dual core to quad core in the space of about two years," Gartner's Enck says. "Application programmers have never had a chance to catch up. ... If I didn't catch that initial wave and rewrite my application for dual core, I'm in big trouble with quad core."
According to experts, most application revisions take nine months to 18 months. "Multithreading projects are long, arduous initiatives -- they require new skills, and they'll change over time as new processors come out," says Matthew Monteyne, marketing manager at RapidMind, which helps software vendors adapt their offerings to processor developments. Some firms turn to consultants to help their developers make these changes, Monteyne adds. And there are software developer's tools available to address the problem -- Aspeed and RapidMind, for instance, offer solutions that ease the process of leveraging multiple cores.
Deutsche Bank is fortunate enough to have the in-house expertise to handle this without too much pain. "We have mature but flexible applications that have gone through many iterations ... and proven themselves flexible," the firm's Chippas says. "We also have the depth of talent at Deutsche Bank globally to program [for quad core] because we have the multithreaded skill set."
According to Chippas, once you've done your first software rewrite, you should be able to take advantage of multicore processors into the foreseeable future. "The investment to get the full benefit of multicore processors should pay dividends for some time whilst new multicore platforms continue to be rolled out," he says.
In addition, there's no avoiding the move to multicore processing. "There are still some people talking about whether they can or should take advantage of multicore, and the truth is, they have to," contends RapidMind's Monteyne.
Doing More With Less
Beyond performance improvements, however, another way to leverage quad-core chips is to run different applications on each core to reduce the number of required servers. "It's a consolidation play more than anything else," says Donovan Ransome, director of channel marketing at Reuters.
"For regional players, there's a huge focus on data center consolidation, power and air conditioning," adds Reuters' Parlapiano. "[Quad-core based] servers play right into that sweet spot."
"We've really achieved big performance gains versus our dual-core chips in the world of virtualization," adds AMD's Fruehe. "Because of constraints on systems -- and you probably couldn't find a more real-estate-constrained spot in the U.S. than Manhattan -- virtualization is becoming a very hot topic for Wall Street. From a virtualization standpoint, we've seen a 99 percent performance increase from our dual-core to our quad-core chips."