EXCLUSIVE: ‘The modern art of the FPGA’ – James Beeken, Andrew Tennant and Thomas Scheibe, Cisco in ‘The Fintech Magazine’
Cisco is releasing the creative potential in field programmable gate arrays. Andrew Tennant, James Beeken and Thomas Scheibe consider how the future might be redrawn.
It was Picasso who said ‘everything you can imagine is real’, but it could be the marketing slogan for a piece of kit that’s elevating programming in one area of financial services to an art form. The technology is the field programmable gate array, more commonly known as FPGA, in which Cisco has invested the future of its ultra-low-latency business, supporting the world’s fastest, high-frequency traders, since acquiring specialist Exablaze (a leader in FPGA in financial services) at the start of 2020.
“Think of the FPGA as a blank canvas, with a physical capability that’s predefined but functionality that’s undefined,” says Andrew Tennant, who leads Cisco’s global ultra-low latency solutions sales team. “It can solve problems that don’t exist yet.”
That probably sounds as whacky as some of Picasso and his Cubist chums’ ideas did way back at the beginning of the 20th century… but remember, they sparked a movement that revolutionised the way we see art today. Cisco isn’t alone in thinking that FPGAs could redraw the future as one that relies less on central processing units (CPUs) and application specific integrated circuitware (ASIC) in certain environments –especially those that depend on ultra-low-latency, such as fighter jet systems and high-frequency trading (HFT) exchanges, where messaging delays are critical and crashes to be avoided. In 2018, for instance, Intel bought Altera, one of the largest producers of FPGAs, for similar reasons.
In high-frequency trading, theFPGA is the avant-garde in computer programming because it not only drives out latency, but also offers traders another big – possibly the biggest – competitive advantage. And that’s flexibility, says James Beeken, who came across to Cisco with the Exablaze team.
“If we had selected ASIC as the core element for our products, we’d have had to fix our design, and that would’ve dictated the growth and path of the product,” explains Beeken, who’s now responsible for Cisco’s sales and business development in the EMEA region.
“With the FPGA at the heart of Cisco/Exablaze switches, network interface cards (NICs) and other future products we’re developing, we’ve a fully-programmable platform, which means it’s forever evolving. If our clients ask us to add features and functionality, or improve existing features, we’re able to. It means we can not only develop ultra-low latency platforms, but can a lso keep those platforms right at the forefront of the market while meeting bespoke client requests.”
In other words, clients no longer need to choose between low latency, performance and time-to- implementation – they can have it all. Historically, that has come at a higher cost, given every application on a FPGA had to be written by what we might call the digital artists – the Cisco engineers. But, since the beginning of 2021, any client can pick up the paintbrush and, as Beeken puts it, ‘let their mind run free’.
“The code itself is the firmware,” explains Tennant. “It essentially lays out a an electrical circuit on the FPGA to drive that hardware performance. That can be done by our own engineering team internally, but the hope is to expand it to other folks with terrific skills and ideas for solving their own problems. Those are the end customers and consultancies that have the expertise in-house.”
Tennant is referring to the firmware development kit (FDK), made available this summer, which provides a software development framework for Cisco’s FPGA-based Nexus switches and SmartNICs, which give higher performance and flexible data processing capabilities when used to offload tasks from high-traffic web servers, such as those used in HFT environments.
“We know these markets are being driven to the wire on latency,” says Beeken, “so, over the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve been driving huge lumps of latency out of the trading cycles. Now we’re searching for that golden nugget that will give our clients that next edge.
“So, we’ve created a product environment that allows client and partner communities to develop the platform even further, with their own ideas. They can let their minds run free and think ‘what if I could add a market gateway or a risk analysis package within this environment?’, as well as imagining how that tool could become a bespoke utility for their business. We can give our clients that capability, so long as they have the in-house skillset. More importantly, we have a community of partner resellers out there, who can develop their own products and lay them on top of our platforms. We’re trying to grow this community around our FPGAs – our basic principle of core functionality – and let them drive it in a direction befitting their business.”
One critical area for improvement in trading exchanges is around the concept of fairness, which has been redefined by the speed that technology developed by Cisco and others has delivered.
“When these [ultra-fast] environments are created, it generates all sorts of downstream problems that have to be solved,” says Beeken. “One of the biggest challenges facing all operators is how to make the market fair. Five years ago, events happened within five or 10 milliseconds of each other – we couldn’t measure at any greater level of granularity, so fairness was easy to achieve. However, today, things are happening in a handful of nanoseconds. The market is no longer fair. So now we’ve got a new problem.
“Fortunately, with a programmable platform, we can build new firmware, create a new angle to that product and tackle the issue of fairness for the next two, three, five years.”
Thomas Scheibe, who runs Cisco’s data centre networking and product management, and advocated for Exablaze to be brought into the fold, is equally excited about the possibilities.
“The FPGA model means there’s a whole range of things customers can do now at their own speed and leisure,” he says. “And the beauty is, it’s not just around the switch, we also have that option of a NIC, so you really can build an end-to-end model where you can optimise your performance, from host to host, with the network in the middle. All the building blocks are there.”
The speed of implementing these upgrades is key, he says, especially in trading environments already running hot.
“They might already have a very high performance solution today, but if they need to take the next step, how are they going to accelerate that? The speed and agility to drive these implementations is crucial for our customers. If they can solve it, we give them the tools. Instead of taking years, it’s getting down to quarters and months, to churn, improve and tune. “That’s the value. The speed with which customers can drive improvement themselves, instead of being driven or relying on vendors.”
Software FPGAs are still niche products and, so far, Cisco has marketed them as targeted solutions for specific customers. But the technology is agnostic and the potential applications unlimited,
according to Beeken.
“We talk about the financial markets, because that’s our sweet spot, but we absolutely want to bring this type of benefit into others, as well – 5G, the military, medical applications, for instance.This product will play into any industry where driving down latency and greater flexibility are important. “There are other specialists out there – in security and risk management – who’ve identified a problem, and we’re inviting them to take the platform, embrace it and develop the solutions for the market.”
The potential savings in cost, time and complexity, when modifications and upgrades are needed to a wide variety of units in the field – from mobile handsets to jump jets – could be transformational, says Tennant. “If you think of it in the simple terms of your ability to manipulate traffic at wire rate, at a hardware level, it’s extraordinarily powerful. The programmability is important, but the re-programmability is equally so. Take 5G with an ever-evolving standard protocol. If you can deploy this thing in the field, in the tens of thousands of units, the ability to go back and evolve the hardware, as the technology and protocols evolve, gives customers much better product lifecycle management.”
The idea behind the FDK builds on the DevNet developer community that’s been thriving at Cisco for a number of years. “It’s about unlocking the programmability, the APIs, the interoperability of all of our core products,” explains Tennant. “That muscle memory within DevNet has given us tremendous acumen around facilitating this sort of value-added, third-party mindset. We know we’re not going to be the only
ones making cool innovations. We appreciate and really welcome the inspiration and innovation that comes from those three- and four-person firms out there, who have incredibly intelligent folks working on hard problems, and they need someone to partner with to bring it to market.
“Think about the iPhone. Originally there was no App Store – that was an afterthought. But it’s those third-party apps that completely dominate the equation now. Apple’s role in that is what I aspire for ours to be – to provide the platform and the incredible capabilities, then the tools to unlock potential.
“I can absolutely see in a few years some really big application coming out of this and somebody’s going to say ‘where did that come from!’. And we’ll say ‘oh, you remember that small acquisition Cisco made? That company called Exablaze, working in the HFT and FPGA niche? That’s the core of what took place here’. The potential really is unfettered.”
As the artist who changed history said, you just need some imagination.