Juniper goes after financial services with its new 'server on a switch'

For most of us, this is Easter week, so we spent much of our weekend putting together gift baskets filled with goodies for our kids. The Monday after Easter was the 2015 HPC for Wall Street – Cloud Technology Show and Conference event in the hub of the financial world, New York City. At the event, Juniper Networks brought its own basket of goodies for "the street" with the unveiling of the QFX5100-AA switch with optional QFX-PFA packet flow accelerator (PFA).

The PFA is based on Altera's multi-100G FPGA. The FPGA enables developers to write applications that can now be run directly on the switch. Unlike most Juniper products that are made for broad adoption, this product is designed for high-performance environments that need to scale out rapidly. While financial services isn't the only vertical that can benefit for the QFX5100-AA, it's certainly the most obvious one.

At the event, I had a chance to sit down with Andy Bach, Chief Architect of the Financial Services Vertical for Juniper, and Ryan Eavy, Executive Director of Architecture for the CME Group. For those who are not familiar with Andy, he spent 28 years running the network at the New York Stock Exchange before joining Juniper. Prior to being an analyst, I was in internal IT for a couple of firms in the financial vertical, so I've always had a great deal of interest in the evolution of technology, particularly the network, in this market.

In my conversation with Ryan Eavy, it was pretty clear that it's getting harder and harder to compete in the financial vertical. One of the reasons is the obvious fact that bandwidth needs keep growing. There are so many electronic trading systems today that order volume has gone through the roof. Eavy displayed a chart during his presentation that showed that in 2010, the network saw about 2.6 million orders on a daily basis. Today, just five years later, this number has jumped to 30 to 40 million per day. This has a multiplicative problem as well, in that each message is then broadcast out to a number of different service providers so each additional order creates multiple new messages to cross the network.

The other challenge in financial services is that it becomes harder to make money because of the shrinking spreads on trades. When I was in this vertical, it wasn't uncommon to see financial services firms make a dime or more per share, per trade. Today, this has been cut down to pennies or even fractions of pennies, meaning firms have to do an order of magnitude more trades to make the same money they did just a few year ago. The theme of "do more with less" has never been truer than it is today in financial services.

One of the big initiatives for the CME is to try and simplify the environment. The increased complexity of IT has been well documented on this site and almost every trade show I go to. Converged infrastructure, such as the Juniper QFX5100-AA, makes it easier to shift to a distributed compute model without having to deploy racks of infrastructure everywhere. Additionally, it makes managing fault tolerance easier. At the CME, if there is a problem with a system, the whole environment is failed over a redundant one so a converged network-server platform means less infrastructure, less complexity, and easier-to-manage failover.

Also, the embedded compute node on the switch means that workloads and processing of information can be pushed out closer to the edge. In the case of order flow, Eavy told me that the CME would use the Juniper switches to change the way it handles inbound and outbound messages. Instead of having to run everything into the core, more processing can be done at the edge and then traffic distributed from that point, eliminating much of the traffic that traverses the network today.

Juniper partnered with Maxeler Technologies to enable customers to create custom features and to do analytics on the data that crosses the network. Bach told me that one of the reasons they liked Maxeler so much is that the interface is very "Java-like," so developers don't have to be scripting and CLI experts. The familiarity of the programming language should help Juniper customers rapidly build applications or features that reside on the compute node embedded in the switch. An example of this is developing an analytic engine that can parse social media feeds to more accurately automate trades. So much of our news today is distributed over Twitter and other platforms first that it's being increasingly important to take all of these feeds in, quickly parse the data, analyze it, and take action. Now this can be done directly on the switch.

As far as the switch goes, it's built on Broadcom's Trident II switch and offers lots of 40-Gig ports. The solid-state disks, FPGA, and the dataflow programming language enabled by Maxeler makes the QFX5100-AA one of the most unique products to be introduced into the financial services vertical in years. Simplification is key, but not at the expense of innovation. The new Juniper switch appeals to the need for networks to be easy both to deploy and manage.

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