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Server Snapshots: Appro in the Real World

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Appro International focuses on the high performance computing (HPC) marketplace, offering a range of AMD and Intel-based systems. Its products are found in supercomputing, financial trading, scientific, digital content creation and other demanding environments.

Speed and reliability are key for Chicago-based Activ International, which provides low-latency market data services to financial institutions. Its HPC requirements led it to Appro Servers, which has been able to scale its products as the company’s needs grow.

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“For the HPC market, processor speed and memory capabilities are key customer purchase requirements,” IDC analyst Earl Joseph said. “Appro has a breadth of HPC products with cluster solution integration where customers can build a consolidated and simplified infrastructure that is easy to implement and scale.”

One such customer is Chicago-based Activ Financial Systems, which provides low-latency market data services to financial institutions. Activ has built a data processing and management system consisting of rack-based, Opteron-powered Appro servers.

“Our systems are high-performance, highly scalable and designed for the rapidly increasing data rates being experienced in our industry,” says Shawn Kaplan, business development director at Activ Financial. “The trend is for computers to replace traders.”

Activ uses Appro 1U XtremeServers designed for memory- and I/O-intensive applications. The 1552H model deployed in Activ’s data centers doubles memory availability in a dual-processor box compared to most other server platforms. It is capable of handling up to 64GB of DDR2 RAM. Such memory capacity is achieved via eight DIMM sockets per CPU.

Although Appro offers some models with Intel chips, the entire XtremeServer line uses only AMD Opteron processors. The 1552H can have up to two SATA or SAS hot-swappable drives inside. It also has one PCI-X and one PCI Express x16, as well dual-port Gigabit Network Interface Cards (NICs).

Hosted Data Centers

Activ Financial delivers its services via two data centers, which are situated in New York City and Chicago. It is a privately owned company based in downtown Chicago with offices in New York City, Wheaton, Ill., the United Kingdom, Singapore and Tokyo. Activ Financial hosts a series of application on Appro 1552H servers tailored specifically to the needs of its customers.

ActivFeed is a consolidated North American data-feed solution, providing real-time streaming of North American prices and supporting data. ActivFeed Direct is for clients that need the lowest possible latency from their market data solution without the cost of maintaining feed handlers and aggregating supporting data. ActivWorkstation is a .NET-based display application that offers core trader functionality. ActivMiddleware is a layered suite of shrink-wrapped software components for building large-scale, real-time distributed systems and underpinning all tiers of ACTIV’s data-feed products.

“We operate a hosted data center facility where many different financial institutions connect to us to utilize our applications,” says Kaplan. “What we do is make timely information available using our trading logic.”

He explained that in the cutthroat world of trading, prices quoted don’t apply to everyone. In fact, only one person gets a specific price — the first person to accept that rate gets it. Therefore, whomever is fastest on the draw (or whomever has the fastest connection and systems) obtains the most attractive rates. Everyone else must accept an adjusted rate that could be much higher. Thus, speed is critical.

That’s where the Appro servers come in. Since they are designed with HPC in mind, they give Activ an edge in accelerating the trade process. The Activ software processes the market information it receives from market exchanges and makes it accessible to customer trading systems. In some cases, Activ even hosts the client’s trading systems, so as to take out additional latency by reason of the network.

Although customers can specify whatever hardware they deem necessary, Activ recommends Appro. According to Kaplan, approximately 75 percent of the total servers in use at the two data centers are Appro boxes. In addition, Activ uses XtremeServers for its own internal IT needs.

“We have several-hundred 1552H XtremeServers and are steadily adding more,” says Kaplan. “Appro delivers fantastic bang for buck.”

These 1U servers can run either the Linux or Windows operating systems. Although Appro has some 32-bit systems, it prefers 64-bit technology. There is no internal preference for a particular operating system. It all depends on customer needs and the application.

“Some logic runs better in Windows, while other logic runs best in Linux,” says Kaplan. “So we decide based on the specific situation we have to deal with.”

Activ bought its first Appro server in 2004 when it opened a new data center. During the selection process, the company determined it wanted a good 1U rack system with solid reliability, high performance and at a good price point. Activ evaluated all the major brands and opted for Appro’s Model 1322 XtremeServer, a predecessor to the 1552H.

“Appro was not the only box that met our specs, but it had the best price/performance ratio,” says Kaplan. “Its reliability is absolutely critical, as the markets can’t be out. Any outage in the trading day means our clients lose money. We have to maintain our reputation for the highest levels of reliability.”

He says the installation of the servers is very straightforward. Surprises are few and far between. The servers also play well with Activ’s proprietary software. Some of its larger clients have dedicated Appro boxes. Many of the smaller clients, however, share a server.

Due to its success at providing financial data with no delays or downtime, Activ has been growing at a fast clip. In 2004, it had two dozen servers; today it has several hundred, with servers doubling just about every year. In the past year, the company had to triple its server count due to the growth of market data. Thus, the ability to scale horizontally has been a vital factor in server selection.

“It is easy to spread our applications across multiple Appro servers,” says Kaplan. “Because of their price point, we can expand what we have using a similar box rather than having to rip out and replace them every year or two.”

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