NEW YORK, June 20, 2006 — Capital market institutions and their throngs of traders are constantly looking for new ways to stay ahead of the game. Time is money – and in the world of equity trading and investments, the power of Microsoft Office Excel as a strategic business tool is growing. Today, at one of the leading forums for the financial services industry, the SIA (Securities Industry Association) Technology Management Conference & Exhibit, Microsoft’s U.S. Financial Services Group is showcasing what promises to become one of the world’s most advanced modeling and trading platforms – the Microsoft Office Excel Services/Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 solution.
Later this year, Microsoft will release two new Excel-related products: Excel 2007 Client as part of 2007 Microsoft Office system and Excel Services as part of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. The new Excel 2007 Client is designed to bring major new features and usability improvements, as well as significant performance boost realized through multithreading support. Excel Services promises to take the ubiquitous Excel applications to new levels with centralized management, increased scalability via native support for multi-CPU x64 servers, and much more. Finally, combining an Excel Services front end with Microsoft Windows Computer Cluster Server 2003 results in even greater performance and scalability.
To learn more, PressPass spoke with Stevan Vidich, technology architect for Microsoft’s U.S. Capital Markets Industry Group.
PressPass: How does Excel Services work in the high-performance computing environment, and what’s the benefit to users?
Vidich: The benefits of Excel Services are numerous. Because of the ubiquity of Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheets within financial services, this new platform is a transparent but significantly robust addition to a tool and interface users are already very familiar with. There’s nothing complicated in this new feature of SharePoint technology, yet the increased power it delivers is far beyond what’s currently available. With Excel Services, users can build interactive business intelligence solutions using spreadsheets, maintain confidentiality by locking down access at the server, and reduce costs and improve time to market by reusing Excel models programmatically within applications. Excel Services provides thousands of concurrent users with a web-based interface of remarkable rendering fidelity to existing Excel spreadsheets that are deployed on centralized servers. Finally, Excel Services can be combined with Windows Computer Cluster Server 2003 as a back-end processing engine to deliver faster, near instantaneous feedback to traders for computationally intensive tasks.
PressPass: If Office Excel is already the most popular and pervasive tool used by securities firms, why is such an upgrade important?
Vidich: Securities firms have long been concerned about spreadsheet creep, particularly in today’s compliance-oriented environment. As U.S. federal and global legislative mandates expand, along with the potential to cause major administrative strain, we’re improving the existing technology to allow traders to remain focused on client service. Excel Services can centrally lock down trader and analyst spreadsheets to provide a single point of truth, alleviating risk and compliance concerns. Because of the existing popularity of Office Excel, Microsoft and its partners are in the best position to solve this problem by providing a scalable, Excel-based front-end, combined with a high-performance-computing-based back-end.
PressPass: What are the benefits of this new modeling and trading platform?
Vidich: We’re seeing several tangible benefits with the beta customers already implementing our High Performance Computing (HPC) solution. Moreover, as our market share increases with financial services firms migrating to the Windows platform, we’re witnessing the added benefits of easier integration and implementation cycles. Again, this ultimately translates into more time spent with customers – which in turn leads to increased profitability and market share for our users. Other value-add components include:
Increased scalability – Office Excel 2007 supports spreadsheets of up to 1 million rows by 16,000 columns in size, eliminating the need to work within multiple spreadsheets or other applications traders need to analyze large amounts of information.
Compliance/spreadsheet management – Office Excel 2007 and Excel Services enable spreadsheets to be managed on a server to help protect important information and ensure that employees are working with the most current data. Employees at financial firms can use Excel Services to navigate, sort, filter, input parameters and interact with PivotTable views, all within their Web browsers.
Basic visualization tools – Traders and other employees can apply conditional formatting to information more easily. They can discover patterns and highlight trends in data by using rich visualization schemes like gradients, thresholds and performance indicator icons.
Business Intelligence (BI) tools – Office Excel 2007 provides full support for Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Analysis Services. Financial firms can use the flexibility and the new cube functions in Office Excel 2007 to build custom reports from an online analytical processing (OLAP) database. Firms can also connect to external sources of data more easily using the Data Connection Library in Office Excel 2007.
PressPass: Microsoft is just recently getting into the high-performance computing space, one that has long been dominated by UNIX and Linux-based solutions. How does Microsoft hope to grow in that market?
Vidich: Microsoft’s view is that High-Performance Computing (HPC) is rapidly expanding beyond traditional supercomputing centers and limited, high-value applications into a broader range of mainstream business processes. This development changes the game and makes integration very important. We see HPC as a mainstream, not niche technology, and we have optimized our approach to allow integration at the tools, infrastructure, and business process levels. With the launch of Windows Compute Cluster Server and, later in the calendar year, Excel 2007 and Excel Services, as well as important offerings from industry partners Digipede Technologies, Platform Computing and others, Microsoft has a competitive offering in financial services with four compelling points of differentiation relative to Linux grids:
Microsoft’s solution seamlessly takes advantage of client’s investments in Microsoft Windows infrastructure. This includes Active Directory, group policy, identity/security, information rights management, single sign-on, patch management, monitoring and provisioning. Developers and administrators will find out that Windows HPC clusters are simple to deploy and operate.
The most advanced and widely used development environment on the market is also the development environment of choice for HPC solutions. Customers can write applications from within the powerful Microsoft Visual Studio IDE and rely on parallel debugger, plug-in support for partner applications, and a host of unmatched features that only Visual Studio provides. New functionality can be developed, tested, and deployed with the same great software engineering tools that other Windows applications enjoy and that client’s programmers already know how to use.
Microsoft’s HPC solution takes full advantage of our leadership in Web services. This means that computational finance can be integrated deeply and seamlessly with business processes through Web services. Customers want to be able to publish or expose computational finance results as Web services, especially as businesses move to Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs).
Solutions that rely on the .NET Framework and Microsoft Office system can take full advantage of Windows Compute Cluster Server. Clients will gain the ability to scale out custom-built .NET applications, such as entire trading platforms integrated with trading analytics, to cluster nodes. And clients can exploit Office Excel as a development and prototyping environment, and be able to move smoothly into large-scale, reliable, controlled production.
PressPass: Here at SIA, you have partnered with HP to demonstrate the next-generation Excel Client and Excel Services platform. Who else are you working with?
Vidich: To help ensure efficient integration of Windows Computer Cluster Server 2003 with a broad set of applications and tools, Microsoft is working closely with software, application, and hardware partners across the industry. Hardware providers such as Broadcom Corp, Cisco Systems, Dell Inc., HP, IBM Corp., NEC Corp., SilverStorm Technologies, Tyan Computer Corp. and Verari Systems Inc. are working with Microsoft to meet customers’ unique needs by enabling them to choose among and run a variety of compatible HPC solutions. On the independent software vendor (ISV) front, Microsoft is working with Digipede Technologies to enable seamless programmatic integration between .NET applications and cluster resources, and with Platform Computing to make sure that Compute Cluster Server nodes can be integrated with existing Platform-managed grids.
PressPass: What history does Microsoft have in serving the capital markets industry and how will Microsoft continue to improve on the delivery of solutions to this market segment?
Vidich: Microsoft serves millions of industry employees and customers worldwide with our operating systems, development tools, productivity applications, and hundreds of incredible partner solutions. That’s just a baseline that grows all the time. With Excel Services, Microsoft is furthering the value to the capital markets industry by giving organizations the ability to do everything from securely sharing spreadsheets to effortlessly creating web-based business intelligence dashboards and portals. In combination with Compute Cluster Server, computationally intensive workloads can be seamlessly distributed to compute nodes for unprecedented performance and scalability gains. This is a solution that no other company can deliver, and one that will grow with a firm’s evolving needs, as well as stay ahead of the frenetic pace of change in the financial services industry.