Financial Technology

Financial Technology

June 20, 2017

FPGA: Getting the Speed and Accuracy Financial Services Firms Need

By Special Guest
Rick Truitt, VP, Financial Services, Napatech ,

Financial services firms are facing increasingly rigorous requirements regarding how they monitor, capture and store electronic order and trade-related data. In terms of monitoring, firms need high visibility into their order flow, both to monitor performance and to respond to security alerts such as possible breaches. From a regulatory and compliance perspective, they need to be able to capture and store all electronic messages with highly granular timestamps, so that when required to perform forensic analysis into past order and trade history, they can sequentially reconstruct all trading-related events.

With all these requirements in mind, how can firms build robust solutions that can sort and store so much information? The first step is to capture data on the network. Data (or packet) capture is critical because it is a single source of truth. It provides visibility across the board. Financial services firms cannot rely on a sampling of data; they need 100 percent of the data. It’s how operators and engineers plan network throughput, routing preferences and the path of least resistance for a trade. In short, 100 percent packet capture has become a necessity.

How FPGA Fits In

However, this necessity is easier said than done. It is true that there are many open source tools available that can help organizations in need of packet capture at low speeds – but trades are conducted at high volume and velocity. In addition, standard network interface cards (NICs) cannot capture all packets at the high speed of today’s trades.

In an effort to save money, some financial services firms decide to buy the equipment themselves and piece a solution together. However, there are a myriad of challenges that go along with optimizing any accelerator card with an appliance; it requires experience and skill that these firms typically lack.

Choosing a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) solution is a good move for many financial firms. FPGA technology supporting FPGA-based network acceleration cards is an exciting evolution in integrated circuit design.

There is a definite advantage to using FPGA technology in trading. When a trade is made, confirmation is received in a manner of nanoseconds. This is not terribly important for an individual conducting small transactions, but it’s crucial for high-frequency traders or proprietary trading. These high-frequency users need a technology that will stamp the packet when it leaves and when it comes back so they can see how quickly a trade is authorized, as it is very important for traders to be able to see when their trade was confirmed. FPGA allows an egress stamp on a packet.

Additionally, FPGA provides valuable help regarding forensics or post-analysis for security reasons. Sometimes it is necessary to look back in time to investigate an attack, and being able to search within a particular time window is incredibly helpful.

Improved Nuts and Bolts

Thanks to FPGA technology, it is now possible to design very flexible hardware platforms, supporting a broad range of existing and new use cases for the financial services industry, all with an extended lifetime/horizon.

Defining expectations for an FPGA-based network acceleration card is important. Any FPGA-based network acceleration card hardware platform should support:

  • Different FPGA size configuration, providing the customer with the right cost/feature ratio options, enabling competitive product offerings.
  • Ethernet link speeds and types available currently and in the near future, through attractive front port connectivity.

This is how the standard architecture of FPGA-based network acceleration cards has played out: the cards have deployed physical layer (PHY) devices in the data path between the FPGA and the Ethernet front port. The discreet silicon PHY device handles the physical layers of the Ethernet protocol stack. However, with the introduction of the latest 20nm FPGA families, the FPGA technology is on par with the current and near-term future Ethernet link speeds, obsoleting the need for the PHY companion devices.

Today’s configuration is based on new network acceleration card technology that implements a PHY-less, FPGA-based network acceleration card design. This industry-pioneering option to operate two FPGA process nodes on the same hardware platform has been enabled through footprint compatibility from the FPGA vendor. The hardware platform is currently supported by a 2 port 100G feature set and support will shortly be followed by the release of a 2 port 40G feature set.

A PHY-less, FPGA-based network acceleration card design offers a number of benefits from the perspective of a multi-link speed customer. It can source many different product variants with the same network acceleration card part number, which reduces the amount of required hardware qualification resources. Its ability to collect volume on one or a few network acceleration card part numbers saves on logistics and cost. An FPGA-based network acceleration card can introduce multi-link speed product variants, eventually handling all major link speeds and types, on the same ports, through dynamic reconfiguration. Finally, it restricts the required knowledge base to one platform. This technology is a vast improvement on previous network acceleration card designs and is bound to take its place in financial services networks around the world.

Gathering Information

While considering high-speed solutions, financial institutions and trading organizations have important questions to ask. They first need to answer in-house questions, including:

  • Do we need any outsourcing help?
  • Will this be a global or local design?
  • What kind of load will we have across the link?
  • What type of support structure do we need? 
  • How many appliances are we looking at?
  • What network speeds are needed?

They also need to ask providers some important questions:

  • First and foremost, ask how much experience the provider has in this industry. The financial industry is bound by many specific regulations and laws, so experience is important.
  • High-speed networks are critical for trades, so ask the provider if their solution is able to do 20G write to disk without drops. At lower speeds, 100 percent packet capture is a commodity; not everyone can say the same at high speeds. Also, be sure to ask about scalability. Financial services firms can no longer risk buying equipment and solutions that are not scalable.
  • Does the solution work with third party applications? If not, this could cause serious issues – especially if a firm has proprietary software that only works with company X and cannot integrate with company Y.
  • Ask if the provider has analytics of its own or is compatible with open source analytics. More and more financial services firms do not want these analytics to come on board because they end up costing five to six times more per appliance. In addition, a firm can have the most expensive and extensive analytics available, but if it does not have the underlying platforms to support them, then the data is not accurate –which makes it essentially useless.

Zero Packet Loss at High Speed

Financial services firms today must have high network speed – there is just no effective way to function without it. To beat competitors and comply with regulations, firms need the fastest and most reliable network possible. Also for these reasons, dropped packets are unacceptable. What firms need is a network solution that provides total packet capture without slowing down. The questions above will enable firms to vet providers and find the best solution the first time around.

About the Author

Rick’s experience spans 25+ years in networking and technology markets, including senior executive roles in several companies. Prior to joining Napatech, Rick became a principal in March 2011, helping launch nPulse, which subsequently was purchased by FireEye. Rick previously held VP roles with Endace, Premiere Global Services (News - Alert) and Equant. He also worked with Dynatech Communications, S.W.I.F.T. and the U.S. State Department. Rick started his career in the United States Navy, Defense Intelligence Agency, Pentagon, and he holds a B.S. in Business Administration. 

Edited by Alicia Young

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