April 11, 2014

With the buzz around the recent introduction of the NASDAQ’s “kill switch” tool (PDF) the ghosts of the August 2012 Knight Capital Group trading debacle are again haunting the minds of many on The Street. Although participating firms can count on kill switches like NASDAQ’s to shut down trading based on each participant’s pre-defined limits, this remedy is almost akin to closing the door after the horse has already left the barn. In other words, such switches don’t address the underlying issue, which means firms risk exposure before the switch activates. How much exposure depends upon what limits a firm sets. While there are no public statements by Knight, or other insiders, on the exact nature of the 2012 “technology issue,” speculation abounds.

On theory holds that “flash trades” like Knights resulted from the well-known “warm-up phase” required by Java Virtual Machine (JVM) technology. In a nutshell, JVM solutions enable Java to run on any platform, powering a host of enterprise applications including trading platforms. The “warm-up phase” is the time it takes a JVM solution, and therefore the applications that depend on it, to reach optimal performance levels. Traditionally, JVM solutions are “warmed-up” using test cases, as is explained in such freely-available resources as Oracle’s JRockit JVM technical literature.

In practice, financial services firms frequently warm-up applications using mock, or simulated, trading data. The risk, of course, is that a chain of events could cause that mock data to be considered live and touch off a cascade of unintended trades. According to Paul Rowady, Senior Analyst for the TABB Group, any known technology issue that creates trading risk, such as the JVM warm-up, is worth investigating. “In my Wall Street & Technology Case Study Feature JVM Warm Up Phase– Pg 2 of 2 experience with high-frequency trading, it makes sense to consider the impact of ‘warming-up’ JVM,” he says. While Rowady stresses he’s unaware of the exact nature of Knight’s issue or the relative magnitude of risk that warming-up JVM poses, he does believe it’s an issue that many highly-automated trading businesses face. “If there’s a viable, cost-effective solution, firms may want to check the issue off the list and move on to something else, given the enormity and complexity of the unknowns,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, at least one technology firm has announced a solution. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Azul Systems recently launched ReadyNow!, a proprietary warm-up mitigation technology now exclusively available within its own JVM solution, called Zing. Beyond reducing the risk, Azul points out that insufficiently warmed systems may not operate at optimal performance at market open due to the dynamics involved in real-world trading environments. With the introduction of ReadyNow!, Azul says Zing provides “peak application performance” without extended warm-up periods. Whether large Wall Street firms with significant investments in established JVMs, such as Oracle’s JRockit or HotSpot (obtained in the Sun Microsystems acquisition), jump ship to adopt a solution like Zing remains to be seen. However, for those firms considering the adoption of a new trading platform, or even upgrading existing systems, investigating new JVM technologies presents an opportunity. All other things being equal, deploying a platform without the warm-up risk certainly can provide competitive advantages.

Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's ...