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Q&A: Bruce Tolley of Solarflare Communications on Network Performance and Precision Timing

In ultra low-latency trading systems, the application to network interface is one cause of significant latency and jitter. Companies like Solarflare have advanced network adaptors designed to overcome those issues. IntelligentTradingTechnology.com got the scoop from Solarflare's vice president of solutions Bruce Tolley.

Q: Firstly, by way of introduction, what are your main products that are relevant to the low-latency trading space?

A: Customers are building solution stacks with best of breed products that consist of high performance servers, high performance 10gE switches, and low latency 10gE server adapters often with middleware for application acceleration, and market data messaging solutions. The right choice of the server adapter of course can reduce latency of the solution stack over 50%.

Solarflare develops application-intelligent 10 gigabit Ethernet (10gE) hardware and software that deliver the industry’s highest-performance, lowest-latency and lowest-power results ideal for high-frequency trading applications. Solarflare’s SFN5122F with OpenOnload can achieve ultra low TCP/UDP application latency and millions of messages per second.

The company’s high performance network stack, OpenOnload, reduces latency and CPU utilisation, and increases message rate and bandwidth. This enables applications to leverage more server resources, resulting in dramatically accelerated application performance without any need to rewrite applications or change the existing Ethernet and TCP/IP infrastructure.

Since Solarflare’s solutions are easy to adopt and deploy, the company reduced our customer’s time to revenue. Low-latency trading organisations can move from proof of concept testing to a full production deployment in a matter of days.

Q: You recently announced deals with NYSE Euronext and CBOE. What were they looking for that made your offering particularly suitable for them? Did they have any particular requirements, or conduct any specific tests?

Both NYSE Euronext and CBOE are committed to using only the best solutions in their data centres to deliver competitive market advantage and provide the highest-value to their own customers. The two companies were attracted to Solarflare’s robust and rigorously tested solutions that met their demanding network and SLA requirements. In each testing scenario, Solarflare’s solutions delivered the highest-performance, lowest-latency results for NYSE Euronext and CBOE.

Now, looking at each organisation individually, NYSE’s trading applications are based on standard technologies and protocols (Ethernet, Linux and TCP/IP) and are written to standard programming APIs, such as POSIX. NYSE Euronext deployed OpenOnload to accelerate TCP and UDP traffic. Due to OpenOnload’s application transparency and protocol support, NYSE Euronext did not need to rewrite their applications, thereby reducing its time to revenue.

For CBOE, Arista Networks and Solarflare’s trading solutions provided a new level of network intelligence by tightly coupling applications to CBOE’s network. This integration of application acceleration to the network itself delivered dramatic improvements in performance, bandwidth and response time to CBOE’s customers, offering a critical competitive edge in the rapidly evolving high frequency trading market. In the case of CBOE, Solarflare worked closely with Arista to support CBOE’s network design requirements. Like NYSE, CBOE selected technology partners who could deliver unparalleled innovation, yet were agile enough to work quickly and effectively with CBOE from development to deployment.

Q: Also, you have made a couple recent announcements about partnerships with network switch vendors – Force 10, Fujitsu – and you also partner with others, like Arista, IBM/Blade. So, are all switches created equal, or are some products better suited to different applications?

A: Because we have the fastest, lowest-latency Layer 2/3 10GbE server adapter, all the Layer 2 Ethernet switching vendors have come to test with us. Also, Solarflare and our switch vendor partners often have common customers who have very specific VLAN, multicast, or multi-chassis link aggregation (MLAG) topologies they want certified and supported. As pointed out above in the explanation of OpenOnload's application transparency, not all of the 10gE server adapters on the market can accelerate traffic transparently over so many different network topologies.

Q: What trends are you seeing in the low-latency trading space that is driving your business and technology decisions?

A: Our customers are building solutions with standard based best of breed products that achieve low latency that they can deploy quickly and maintain with in house staff. These corporate and business goals drive three fundamental requirements: 1) a commitment to standard based products based on Linux, IP and Ethernet, 2) support of existing Linux based applications that most often require POSIX sockets support, and 3) interoperability with Linux, TCP/IP and Ethernet.

Even when for the sake of the absolute lowest latency, our customers consider appliances based on cell processors or FPGAs, they still want such products to be integrated into industry standard servers and to support full TCP/IP Ethernet networking.

Solarflare was the first 10gE server adapter vendor to deliver a proven OS bypass solution to the high-frequency trading space with its application intelligent networking. Its OpenOnload middleware enables applications to get closer to the network to avoid the various overheads from the operating system that sits between the application and network. In light of points 2 and 3 above, our customers have demanded full application transparency from Solarflare’s OpenOnload, meaning as explained earlier, the ability to accelerate applications while maintaining complete TCP/IP compliance and interoperability and full support for Linux system calls.

Analytics also requires low latency. High frequency trading is usually divided into three logical or functional segments: Market data, analytics, and trade execution. To date, most of the low latency, high performance 10gE kit has been deployed for market data and trade execution applications. Analytics supports the risk and credit analysis, data mining for market modeling, as well as other data intensive business requirements for the trading and banking companies.

With the advent of so called Big Data, banks, securities firms and trading houses now have tools, products and technologies such as Hadoop and MapReduce that enable the very high speed search of structured and unstructured data. The time between query and response of the databases is measured in milliseconds and latency matters. Many customers are starting evaluations of 10gE infrastructure in combination with high performance storage and big data software to support high speed, real time and low-latency analytics.

Q: Tell us more about OpenOnload – what it does and how, and what specific challenges does it address?

A: OpenOnload is a Linux-based, open source, high-performance application accelerator that achieves performance improvements by performing network processing at the user level, bypassing the OS kernel entirely on the data path.

The solution is ideal for applications that benefit from lower latency (with bounded jitter) and higher throughput. OpenOnload allows the application to talk directly to NICs and at the same time is 100% application compatible, so users don’t have to re-write any applications to deploy Solarflare and start receiving its benefits.

Critical to the market success of OpenOnload has been Solarflare’s hybrid architecture, which provides access to both kernel space for control plane functionality and the user space for acceleration, delivers protocol conformance and application transparency benefits to customers.

Protocol conformance means that in addition to POSIX compatibility, OpenOnload has been designed to provide full protocol adherence and high performance in congested environment by implementing a complete set of RFCs, including congestion avoidance and recovery.

Application transparency means that OpenOnload’s kernel module registers with the Linux kernel control plane and receives full notifications of the needed network state. This enables OpenOnload to behave in the same way as the kernel stack with complete transparency, thereby accelerating intelligent applications while supporting important network protocols.

The latest releases of OpenOnload include new features that provide performance enhancements in a variety of application environments. New features include: an affinity driver to map applications to specific server cores; PCIe bus optimisations to reduce latency by up to 300 nanoseconds; acceleration of the Linux Pipe command that speeds communication between two processes on a server; and a socket and stack control API that enables customers to control and fine tune acceleration options on a per-socket basis.

OpenOnload leverages the adapter’s scalable vNIC architecture that provides up to 2,048 protected interfaces to map applications directly to the NIC hardware. OpenOnload uses queue pairs made available by Solarflare’sscalable vNIC architecture to create faster direct connections with applications. It bypasses the OS kernel and enables applications to increase their network load, while increasing their performance.

Q: How would you say that 10gE technology in general – and your products in particular – stack up against InfiniBand in terms of latency and jitter performance?

A: 10gE Ethernet and TCP/IP were designed from the ground up as networking technologies to support a broad range of equipment types and applications from multiple vendors. Infiniband (IB) with its associated RDMA protocol including sister protocols like RoCE was designed for block memory transfers and is supported today only by one or two vendors.

While many customers run mission critical applications with installed clusters of IB, it is not deployed widely outside of the high performance computing space.  Solarflare sees IB as a niche technology with a narrow feature set. IB is not compatible with POSIX APIs which are required for most Linux applications on the market and it does not support the TCP UDP protocols. In contrast, 10gE is a feature rich networking technology; completely compatible with TCP/IP that supports broad range of applications.

Q: What emerging technology developments do you see as useful in terms of increasing performance and functionality of network adaptors? Are there any specific Solarflare directions that you can share?

A: Solarflare recently unveiled its new precision timing protocol (PTP) server adapter, targeting high-frequency trading environments and other high performance applications such as transaction processing, security, and government.

The PTP adapter enables network engineers and IT architects latency to synchronise networks and deploy very precise precision time protocol, allowing for more precise monitoring, auditing and measurement capabilities.

Solarflare’s PTP adapter is based on the IEEE 1588 standard and will perform clock synchronisation, enabling server clocks to be disciplined to within 500 nanoseconds of the master network clock from a GPS signal. This enables customers to run the 1588 clock synchronisation protocol on the Ethernet production data network and obviate the need to build dedicated timing networks with specialised appliances, delivering a substantial saving in capex.

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