Zero Latency: An Obsession with Velocity

June 8, 2011
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Vendors often promise some derivative of the term “faster” in marketing and sales literature (i.e. faster decisions, quicker time to value, rapid implementations etc…). And to be sure, in plenty of cases, speed wins especially in terms of gaining insights into markets and customers before competitors get a clue. However, when it comes to decision making, too much speed without attention to improvements in logic and business processes can be disastrous.

Vendors often promise some derivative of the term “faster” in marketing and sales literature (i.e. faster decisions, quicker time to value, rapid implementations etc…). And to be sure, in plenty of cases, speed wins especially in terms of gaining insights into markets and customers before competitors get a clue. However, when it comes to decision making, too much speed without attention to improvements in logic and business processes can be disastrous.

It’s easy to confuse “fastest” with “best”. That’s what Jennifer Hughes writes in a Financial Times article on the arena of high frequency trading (HFT). The term HFT refers to buying and selling financial instruments in microseconds with the help of supercomputers, sophisticated algorithms, and in most instances co-location of equipment near stock exchange servers. In HFT, the goal is to make profitable trades faster than competitors, and this means that massive amounts of data must be examined in real time and buy/sell decisions executed in microseconds.

Editor’s note: Paul Barsch is an employee of Teradata. Teradata is a sponsor of The Smart Data Collective.

While an extreme case, high frequency traders are truncating the decision making window between “event” and “action” to near zero. In the previously mentioned Financial Times article, Kevin Rogers of Deutsche Bank says; “With some parts of the market we are getting to the point where the speed of light (is the only constraint).” And certainly, if one company can spot deals and trade faster than another, microseconds can be a significant advantage in profitability.

However, while in many cases speed wins, there are concerns, especially in terms of cost. After all, throwing millions of dollars in compute power to shave off a couple of microseconds might not be worth the investment. “We’re looking at a tipping point,” says Harpal Sandu, founder of electronic trading network Integral Development. “Trading isn’t going to get much faster than a few dozen microseconds—physical machines don’t run much faster than that.”

In addition, making decisions faster than competitors is useless if careful attention is lacking in data input, decision logic (possibly manifesting in algorithm development) and continual process improvement.  Moreover, the best decision today, or even ten minutes ago, might not be the best decision tomorrow, especially because external conditions make for a moving target with governmental policy changes, mergers and acquisitions, new technology development and more.

A final consideration is fragility. In high frequency trading for example, as trading decisions move closer to zero latency, there is less opportunity to remedy a potential mistake whether it consists of a “fat finger order”, or simply a poor trading decision that a company would like to correct. Adding insult to injury, in a complex environment such as stock markets, a poor decision made quickly can cause cascading effects to other players creating a massive market disruption.

In the countdown to zero latency, the focus is currently on speed. However, the returns on faster decision making are diminishing and equal opportunity should also be given to risk management considerations, business process improvement, and monitoring of business conditions to continually upgrade and refine decision making logic.

 Questions:

  • Can speed drastically increase without introducing fragility?
  • Does a focus on speed provide an opportunity for companies to “get better” in how they deliver products and services?