Friday, March 9, 2007

Monster Excel Workbooks Exposed

Everyone knows that Microsoft Office is a bit of a memory hog. In fact, few products can claim as much credit for driving the memory upgrade cycle as the ubiquitous combination of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. However, while many power users may think they’ve pushed the envelope on one or more of these applications – massive documents, huge spreadsheets, media-rich presentations – none can compare to those captains of industry that make their home at the corner of Wall and Broadway.

I’m referring, of course, to financial services traders. The “Type A” personality crowd – risk takers, deal makers, the rock stars of wealth creation. They live life on the edge, balancing risk vs. reward in constant battle with each other and the market itself. And the fuel that drives their engines is…data. Lots and lots of data – analyzed, quantified and extrapolated in nearly every conceivable way.

Massaging that data falls on the shoulders of Microsoft Excel. Through myriad templates and macros and real-time data connections, these traders push Excel to the extreme as they tweak and tune their customized (and highly proprietary) financial models. All of which consumes a tremendous amount of hardware resources. In at least one shop we found that traders ran, on average, six concurrent instances of the Excel application process, each one occupying a peak memory footprint of from 300-500MB during a normal trading session (for a total of 1.8GB).
CPU utilization was also high, with each instance consuming ~60% of the available CPU cycles on a 4-CPU workstation, or 300% out of a total CPU capacity of 400% (100% x 4 CPU). Then there was the thread count. At any given time these systems were asked to juggle up to 230 concurrent execution threads just from the various Excel instances.

That’s approximately 1/2 the total thread workload for a typical business productivity user, yet this is just one application among many. These systems are also running proprietary trading software (plus various real-time feeds, like Bloomberg), which is why even a high-end PC isn’t adequate. Hence their reliance on top-of-the-line workstation hardware. And even then, with dual-cores and gigabytes of memory, many traders still need more than one system in order to handle their computational load. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find 3 or more high-end boxes under a trader’s desk – thanks in large part to the overhead of their massive Excel workbooks.

1.8GB of RAM. 300% CPU utilization. 230 concurrent execution threads. And you thought your spreadsheets were complicated!

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