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Q&A: Exablaze’s Matthew Chapman on Network Switch Latency and Management

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In a world where major network vendors like Cisco Systems and Arista Networks are competing on increasingly complex functionality, there is still room for niche products that fulfill straightforward local connectivity needs, including manageability with negligible latency. IntelligentTradingTechnology.com spoke to Exablaze’s CTO Matthew Chapman about this need, and how his company is addressing it.

Q: To start with, can you introduce Exablaze and explain what your ExaLINK 50 is?

A: Exablaze is an Australian networking technology vendor with a focus on low latency. Many of our key staff come from a trading background, and the products were originally conceived to solve challenges in that space. The first device we brought to market, the ExaLINK 50, is an ultra-low-latency matrix switch that forwards data in less than 5 nanoseconds (in some cases as little as 2.4 nanoseconds).

Q: Can you detail the key functionality and unique features of the ExaLINK 50?

A: The ExaLINK 50 is a 50-port device that can be dynamically configured to connect any port to any port, any port to multiple ports, or any combination of the two. Once a circuit is set up, data flows in under 5 nanoseconds, which is orders of magnitude faster than a typical switch. In a trading environment the device can be used to distribute market data or other updates that need to be shared between multiple servers. It can also be used as an electronic patch panel allowing remote reconfiguration of network connections, and it allows any connection to be tapped out to a mirror port, eliminating the need for complicated arrangements of network taps and splitters.

Q: How important is low latency for today’s trading firms and strategies? Isn’t it just a very small market that cares?

A: While not every trading strategy requires ultra-low latency, practically every trading firm pays some attention to latency – other factors being equal, no firm wants to use a slower product than their competitors. Even in applications where microseconds may not matter, our products can offer other benefits such as enabling remote management and network monitoring.

Q: Can you say some more about the remote management features of the ExaLINK 50 and why they are important?

A: Many trading participants have servers deployed in remote data centres such as exchange co-location centers. One popular use case for the ExaLINK in this environment is as a top-of-rack electronic patch panel. If the various connections in a remote server rack are patched through an ExaLINK, the customer can remotely reconfigure the connectivity of the rack, e.g. fail over from a primary to a backup connection, disconnect misbehaving ports, or tap connections out for monitoring. This can be done rapidly – at the click of a mouse, a few keystrokes on a command line, or even programmatically – avoiding expensive and potentially error-prone calls to ‘remote hands’ staff at the data centre. Best of all, the sub-5ns latency of the ExaLINK means that this functionality can be added to a network with virtually no impact on performance.

Q: What is the ExaNIC X4 and what are some of its key features? Why does the world need another NIC?

A: The ExaNIC X4 is a 10GbE network card specifically designed for low latency applications including trading. It delivers what we believe to be the lowest latency in the industry – 950 nanoseconds from network to application to network for small Ethernet frames – which makes it the first card to break the microsecond barrier. Additionally, built-in support for hardware time stamping allows precise measurement of data arrival times at trading servers without the need for more complex monitoring infrastructure. Built-in port mirroring aids in network monitoring, debugging and logging. Built-in bridging allows latency-critical servers to be directly connected to an exchange connection, while still allowing other servers to be connected behind the bridge; this allows customers to potentially eliminate a switch hop. Such functionality is not generally available in commodity NICs and so we saw a niche for a card that would fulfill these needs in addition to providing ultra-low latency.

Q: Where is Exablaze at in terms of having in-production customers, customers evaluating, etc?

A: The ExaLINK device has been deployed in production by many customers, in some cases since the start of 2013. It continues to receive good feedback and strong sales. The ExaNIC has been in beta testing with a number of customers since August 2013, with production cards now shipping as of December 2013. Customers interested in evaluating either product should contact us.

Q: Given your location, what is your geographic sales focus, and how will you support customers in far off places?

A: Our customers are located all around the world, predominately in the US, followed by Europe and Asia. Currently we are supporting our existing customer base remotely from Australia, however we are in discussions with a number of value-added resellers to help us establish a local presence and support infrastructure in various markets.

Q: What do you expect 2014 to bring for Exablaze and the market you are serving?

A: Based on our conversations with customers we expect strong demand for the ExaNIC, particularly in early 2014 as our drivers and software stack reach maturity. In Q1 we are also releasing a two-port half-height version of the card which will be of particular interest to those customers with small servers that cannot fit the current full-height ExaNIC X4. We also have a number of follow-on products to be released in 2014 that will expand our portfolio of low-latency networking products; these have not been announced yet but watch this space.

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