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Trading floors need new IT

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Since the JSE adopted SETS – London’s Stock Exchange electronic order book – it has more doubled its trade, showing that technology has an incredible impact on the financial world, writes CHRIS BUCHANAN, Director of Client Solutions at Dell EMC.

In 2002 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange adopted SETS, the London Stock Exchange’s flagship electronic order book. When a 2013 research paper studied the impact of this, it found the JSE was more liquid, had doubled its trade and lowered trading costs. There is no doubt that good technology has an incredible impact on the fast-moving yet nuanced world of financial trading.

Modern-day financial trading floors are a far cry from the noisy, frantic telephone-centred scenes of the 1980s. Significant upward trends in computing, data distribution and automated trading techniques have placed IT at the core of these environments. Trading floors are now dynamic hotbeds of IT innovation, where latency is king, and where even a few minutes of downtime can result in multi-million dollar losses. At the New York Stock Exchange, computers even have the exact same cable lengths so one doesn’t beat any others by being a little shorter and therefore faster to the mark.

But this is placing IT management teams under intense pressure to ensure operating environments are perfect. Whether performing maintenance, patching vital software updates, carrying out regular moves/adds/changes (MACs) according to traders’ requirements or ensuring processes are compliant with ever-changing security regulations, these teams have their work cut out.

With these unique challenges, organisations can benefit from Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) – the practice of hosting a desktop operating system within a virtual machine running on a centralised server, with users accessing this virtual environment through any endpoint device. When assessing how best to adapt their IT strategy there are a number of areas financial trading houses should consider:

Workforce transformation

The first of these is IT management. On a trading floor, MACs – a set of tasks that IT teams regularly perform to keep computing equipment up-to-date and aligned with user requirements – happen continuously. With traders regularly relocating and demanding ever-so-slightly different configurations of hardware and software – IT teams can find themselves on a carousel of moving parts, each one scrutinised.

The prevalence of multiple devices and mobile working compounds this challenge – laptops must be kept up to date and software applications patched to mobile devices so that trades can be executed on the move. For many financial institutions, this array of devices often includes multiple PCs per trader – sometimes one per monitor – which must be moved and managed individually.

With VDI, workstations are moved to the datacenter and can be replaced by location-agnostic thin clients, which are centrally configured, eliminating the need for a member of the IT team to visit the user’s desk. Utilising thin clients improves reliability and, in the case of MACs, enables immediate reconfiguration, getting the trader back online and sustaining invaluable uptime. For this reason, organisations such as Kotak Securities have implemented thin clients in order to benefit from the devices’ secure, high performance capabilities, and reduce the IT management burden.

Application deployment

Software deployments present another significant challenge for IT. Traders use customised application sets for news monitoring, price analysis and communication, amongst a range of other purposes. Deploying and updating these manually, across the myriad of devices, is time-intensive and adds further weight to the IT management workload.

With virtual desktops, all software deployments and updates are administered centrally, enabling the complex web of applications to be coordinated from a single system. Not only does this reduce time spent “keeping the lights on”, but also enables IT teams to focus on innovation. In a world where IT innovation can lead to millions in additional revenue, this is a significant ‘value-add’.

Security and compliance

Amongst the IT management issues regularly faced by financial institutions, security is also close to the top of the list. As data protection regulation continues to tighten and malware techniques become more varied, monitoring endpoints and storage methods becomes a business necessity.

For trading houses handling market-sensitive information, this level of protection is nothing new. Many organisations already utilise virtual desktops to remain aware of where their data resides and how it is communicated both internally and externally. With all data held in the datacenter, information is secure, and reporting/auditing is more straightforward.

The threat of malware is, comparatively, a new challenge. For traders on the move, even when operating in a virtualized environment, it is essential to keep endpoints safe from would-be hackers. To do so, organisations can patch embedded endpoint security software. This additional layer of threat protection ensures vital information is kept safe and is easily managed across all devices.

Energy consumption

The final challenge for financial trading houses seeking to get more from their IT is its impact on energy consumption. In terms of building regulations, many of the world’s financial offices are already maxed out in terms of energy usage, not least because datacenters are often housed on site. Moving workstations to the datacenter and replacing with low energy consumption desktops, such as thin clients, has a significant impact on power consumption, and air-con demands. VDI also enables more straightforward integration of hybrid cloud storage techniques, again, removing power-intensive datacenter components from the building.

VDI is helping the financial sector to overcome some of its core IT challenges. Through centralized client management across a range of devices, companies no longer have to dispatch technicians to traders’ desk or to remote deployments. Traders are not disrupted, and IT personnel can execute repairs and software upgrades in minutes rather than hours. This frees up time for IT innovation, all while ensuring vital data is kept safe.

To ease the regulatory and budget pressures facing IT departments across the finance industry, VDI is a safe bet.

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Broadband gets a helping hand

Behind this week’s news that MTN fibre provider Supersonic has launched a fixed LTE service is an effort to rethink home connectivity, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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This week, MTN made its biggest play yet into the market for fibre connections to homes, but its biggest impact may well be within the home.

The mobile operator’s fibre-to-the-home subsidiary, Supersonic, launched a Fixed LTE offering on a month-to-month basis, meaning that homes in areas not yet wired for fibre can receive high-speed broadband. More important, they can get that access at rates that seem unprecedented for mobile data. 

There are two differences from regular packages, however. For one thing, the SIM card that comes with the package only works in specific routers that have to remain plugged into a power supply. For another, the data allocation is split half-half between regular hours and a Night Owl timeframe: the hours between midnight and dawn.

“It just needs users to adjust their internet behaviour a little,” says Calvin Collett, MD of Supersonic. “Conducting massive mobile phone updates or downloading an entire library of Netflix content shouldn’t be prioritised during the day, but should be scheduled for Night Owl data consumption.”

The biggest benefit, aside from pricing, is that one does not have to wait for fibre to arrive in a specific area. While Supersonic’s core business is fixed-line fibre-to-the-home, it is now set to leverage its parent company’s massive mobile data network.

“MTN’s LTE network coverage sits at 95%, after billions of rand was invested in network upgrades in recent years. There is absolutely no reason why those waiting for a fibre connection shouldn’t move to Fixed LTE.”

Collett argues that consumers are far more savvy and well informed of developments in the telecoms space than observers think. They carefully investigate the products and services they choose to spend on, and are looking for the best deals available.

The result is that Supersonic has quietly built up a side business in installing what is called a Mesh Wi-Fi network, consisting of a main Wi-Fi router connected to the standardfibre or LTE or router, and a series of additional access pointscalled plumes, placed in areas of low coverage through ahome.

The plumes – small pods that plug into any power point –connect to one another to expand the network across a wide area. Where traditional WI-FI extenders lose up to half the fibre bandwidth with every extension, the plumes maintain most of the speed regardless of how far the network is extended. All the pods connected to the same router form a single network with the same network name, eliminating the complications Wi-FI extenders usually introduce.

“The traditional Wi-Fi router has replaced the dial up connection, and we’re all happy about this – the infamous dial up tone is ingrained in the brains of anyone over the age of 30,” says Collett. “Wi-Fi revolutionised our way of life as the router gave us access to the internet without directly connecting to a modem. 

“We’ve moved forward, transitioning from ADSL to fibre. While fibre allows for high speed internet access, it is still connected to your Wi-Fi router. Naturally, the further you move away from the hub, the poorer your internet connection will be. Those dead spots around the house can become frustrating when your Wi-Fi signal shows 1 bar and it takes 5 minutes to load a single web page. Mesh Wi-Fi is the solution.”

Collett says he specifically researched a product that looked good, offered app-based management and required no cables. His research led him to Silicon Valley, and the result is the Supersonic Plume Mesh network system.

The drawback is that installation can be complicated for the non-technical consumer. To plug the gap, so to speak, Supersonic sends out technicians who conduct a Wi-Fi sweep of a home and advise how many Plume devices will be needed for 100% coverage. Based on this the technicians make a recommendation for an optimal “smart Wi-Fi”solution. Once installed, though, the network can be monitored and managed from a Supersonic App.

We tried it out and found it was a tale of two experiences. The initial experience was frustrating, as the pods tried to find each other. This is a necessary evil, it seems, as the Plume Mesh network optimises itself over a period of several days. That means the experience at the edge of the network can be very poor at the time of installation. After a few days, however the network was flying.

With a 100Mbps line, the experience next to the main router was around 105 Mbps, both up and down. That in itself was something of a marvel. But the biggest impact was felt at the furthest point from the router: where a Wi-Fi extender had previously delivered speeds of below 10Mbps, download speeds of 80Mbps became not only commonplace, but almost taken for granted.

One of the most useful features of the Plume Mesh is the level of monitoring offered through the Supersonic app. One can observe exactly what devices are connected to which pods – each is given a name, typically of the room, that is visible only through the app.

The biggest surprise of the plume solution is that it has not become a standard solution for Wi-Fi networks everywhere. In an era when we have become deeply dependent on a decent Wi-Fi signal, it has become a necessity rather than a luxury. As a result, home connectivity should be taken far more seriously than merely fobbing consumers off on low-performance extenders. 

MTN seems to have taken this message to heart, rethinking its own approach to home usage.

“Internet access has become the third utility behind electricity and water,” says Collett. “Our goal is to ‘own the home’ but not just by connecting a bunch of devices to a central point. It’s really about how these devices can pioneer habitual change in the home that’s convenient and saves valuable time and money.”

Click here to read about SuperSonic’s pricing.

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Location data key to transforming SA’s transport system

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Location technology can transform South Africa’s transport system – but don’t expect to see self-driving cars on our roads any time soon. What’s more relevant is the need for the public and private sectors to work together more closely to unlock the significant social and economic benefits that more efficient transport and mobility systems would bring to the country, including less congestion and fewer road accidents. 

That was the message from Michael Bültmann, Managing Director, in charge of international relations  atHERE Technologies, a global leader in mapping and location platform services, at an event hosted by the international law firm Covington & Burling in Johannesburg last week, to discuss how digitization could support better mobility, safety and integration in South Africa. 

“Society needs to solve some fundamental challenges, and relevant location data can play a key role in creating a better future for mobility in South Africa. If we know where the goods and people are, and how and why they move, we have the basis for a system that matches demand and supply far more closely, and uses our transport infrastructure more efficiently,” saidBültmann.

“But no company, government or individual can do it all themselves. It’s all about collaborating. If we get real-time data use right, it would have a profound effect on the way the entire economy works: less congestion, fewer accidents, more efficient use of vehicles and public transport, less air pollution, greater quality of life, and potential savings of billions of rands in fuel, time and safer roads.”

Speaking at the event, the CSIR’s Dr Mathetha Mokonyama said that despite the billions of rands pumped into the country’s mass public transport network in recent years, 90% of commuter seats available are still provided by either cars or taxis.

“We have the right to dignity. If you want to see indignity, look at people getting up at 2am to get unreliable transport to a job that only pays R3500 a month. In our country, access to transport is critical for people to make a living, and our focus as a country should be to implement an equitable and just transport system that caters to all sectors of society,” he said.

“It was a pleasure to support the event that brought together so many viewpoints on the question of the effective use of data and location intelligence to enhance the mobility of goods, people and services,” said Robert Kayihura, senior advisor in Covington’s Johannesburg office.  “While the harmonization of regulatory regimes around the continent will take time, a key takeaway from our discussions is the critical need to build a shared vision of the future through consistent public-private dialogue and collaboration in order to accelerate and ensure the sustainable and safe digitization of Africa.”

Paul Vorster, the chief executive of the Intelligent Transport Society of SA (ITSSA), said the effective sharing of data between metros, government and the private sector would ‘go a long way’ to improving the efficiency of existing transport infrastructure.

“The starting point is to improve what we already have. Once we know what we have – that is, data – we can start solving real problems, like knowing where the demand and supply are. But to do this, metros will need to learn from each other, and they often face political hurdles in the process,” he said.

Bültmann said increasing levels of urbanisation across the world were creating the need for cities to better predict, manage and plan future urban movement. Combining and analysing data from different, complementary sources could help South African cities to improve urban planning, relieve congestion and curb pollution for better quality of life.

The event was also attended by Presidential Investment Envoy Phumzile Langeni, the National Planning Commission’s Themba Dlamini; SANRAL’s Alan Robinson; and Dr Rüdiger Lotz, the Deputy Head of Mission at the German Embassy. The guests were welcomed by Witney Schneidman, the head of Covington’s Africa practice and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001) in the U.S. Government.

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