From the April 2014 issue of Futures Magazine • Subscribe!

Trading on the cutting edge

Computer hardware has come a long way. Quad-core machines are common. However, not all quad-core machines are alike. Not only are there differences at the processor level, but developers must code their applications to take advantage of the multiple cores. Expensive quad-core processors include enhancements that a skilled developer can use to maximize performance, but we need to look at each processor separately to assess the potential.

Here, we will review recent hardware enhancements, examine how programming efficiencies can benefit traders and quantify the analytical edge the multicore programming provides.

By the numbers

When shopping for a computer, it is important to identify the characteristics that can make the biggest difference in terms of performance. Some of these key features include number of cores, clock speed, bus speed, hyper-threading and compatibility among components. 

There are two main choices for desktop CPUs: Intel and AMD. These processors are not interchangeable. Moreover, all CPUs do not fit all computer makes and models. A CPU attaches to a computer’s motherboard through a special socket. Some manufacturers consistently use the same type of socket in all their products’ motherboards, which can tie a specific CPU type or company to a brand. Finding out whether a certain CPU is compatible with a particular computer model is the most fundamental aspect of CPU selection.

The number of cores, clock speed and hyper-threading capabilities are among the most important specifications. As is often the case with technology, numbers are not everything. Personal needs must be taken into account.

Having more cores on a processor means that it can execute more tasks in parallel. Dual-core processors, which started the multicore revolution, have become the minimum standard on laptops, while quad-core machines have become standard for desktops. It is possible to find CPUs with six or more cores. 

Hyper-threading is an Intel technology that enables a single core to process various threads simultaneously. For example, a six-core processor featuring hyper-threading can process 12 threads at a time. In practice, due to bottlenecks, hyper-threading increases performance by about 30%. Hyper-threading also requires operating system support, in addition to the hardware. 

Then there’s clock speed, which is expressed in gigahertz. This measure describes how often the computer’s clock pulses in one minute. CPUs combining a high clock speed with hyper-threading and multiple cores are the fastest and most powerful. Overclocking allows CPUs to run faster than their regular speed specifications. Overclocking CPUs usually requires more power and will generate more heat. Extreme overclocking can introduce computational errors.

In terms of technology that surpasses the needs of the typical user, Intel remains ahead of AMD in general performance and speed (see “Multiple-Core CPUs,” below). AMD only becomes a competitor when it comes to budget CPUs.

For example, AMD chips do not have hyper-threading and cannot be overclocked. When buying a quad-core machine, the processor is critical to the speed of the machine when running multicore software. The Intel i5 also does not offer multi-threading, like the i7. If we have properly designed multicore software, a hyper-threaded quad-core processor will generally perform about the same as a six-core AMD chip.

Most popular high-end machines use six, core CPUs, such as:

  1. Core i7-3930k and Core i7-3970x: Fastest consumer CPUs on the market with 12 threads and six physical cores.
  2. Core i7-4770k: Ivy Bridge processor and excellent value.
  3. Core i7-4770: Recommended minimum processor for traders and an excellent choice for traders on a budget.

My current machine is an Intel six-core i7-990x with 24GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state hard drive. Newer machines from a custom builder, such as EZ Trading Computers, might come with the Intel Core i7-4960X and benchmark much higher. Because these machines are overclocked to get the best performance, reliability is important. Only purchase from a company that offers a long warranty and technical support. EZ Trading Computers is one such firm, but there are others.

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