Bloomberg Goes IP

It sounds like a headline Bloomberg might carry: Network upgrade gets information services firm ready for the dot-com era. But in this story, the company that redesigned its network is financial information powerhouse Bloomberg itself.

Bloomberg recently migrated its private network from dedicated terminals and home-grown black boxes running proprietary network protocols to standard PCs, Unix workstations and off-the-shelf routers running IP.

In overhauling its network, Bloomberg spent “far in excess of [US]$50 million” on network equipment and personnel, says Tom Secunda, a Bloomberg founder and the company’s head of development. But Bloomberg is already reaping the rewards of the project in terms of cost savings from not having to build its own network gear and from the ability to offer new Internet-based services, he says.

“The greatest advantage to us with the new network is that we can take advantage of new products and technologies,” Secunda says. “We’re able to buy someone else’s hardware, although we tend to build a lot of the software ourselves.”

By using IP, Bloomberg can make its information service interoperate with existing Internet content and can take advantage of Internet applications such as Real Network’s RealAudio and Microsoft’s NetShow to create multimedia news feeds.

“Bloomberg is now, in a loose sense, a portal,” Secunda explains. “We provide our customers with Internet content, and we direct them to the appropriate content on the Web. For example, if you were looking at IBM information on Bloomberg, we can add a URL that you can click on to get to IBM’s Web site.”

Founded in 1982 and headquartered in New York, Bloomberg provides breaking news and stock ticker information to banks and other financial institutions. Bloomberg has two data centres — in New York and Princeton, N.J. — that are connected via a private frame relay network to tens of thousands of customer sites around the world. Bloomberg supports more than 120,000 terminals, which are usually owned and maintained by the customer.

Bloomberg relies on a handful of carriers to lease the portion of the network from its data centres to points of presence (POP) in major cities and then to customer sites. The POPs house routers for passing data. From the POPs, the information goes to routers at the customer sites and then to individual terminals.

In the past, Bloomberg used custom-made Intel multibus terminals that communicated with Unix servers — and before that, minicomputers in the data centres.

“We created a protocol that talked over our frame relay network. It ran on a proprietary box, built on Intel technology by us, to do screen display and protocol conversion at the customer site.” Similar special-purpose boxes that supported the proprietary protocols were located in Bloomberg’s data centres and POP sites.

The new network, which most Bloomberg customers had converted to by October 1999, still relies on frame relay for the transport layer, but it supports traffic using both the IP and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) standards. Bloomberg uses off-the-shelf routers from Nortel Networks and commercial network management software such as Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView.

During the network migration, Bloomberg customers ran into some problems sending UDP-based multimedia traffic through commercial firewalls. To resolve these problems, Bloomberg chose the SOCKS 5 protocol. In fact, NEC Systems announced in November a special version of its SOCKS 5 server — the EBorder Special Edition — that is customized for Bloomberg’s services. Users of the special NEC SOCKS 5 server include Dresdner Bank and Merrill Lynch.

Dresdner Bank has migrated all 600 of its Bloomberg terminals — located in Frankfurt, New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore — to the new IP router system. At each site, Dresdner has set up a firewall complex based on NEC’s SOCKS 5 server to protect Dresdner’s corporate network from third-party networks such as Bloomberg’s, says Norbert Schaar, network and security consultant for Dresdner Bank’s Global IT Services. Schaar says NEC’s special server “ensures the enforcement of our security policy, provides proxy services for a lot of services and applications, and enhances the security and availability.”

With its IP network in place, Bloomberg plans to roll out new offerings in such areas as streaming audio and video as well as conference calling. “We have hundreds of different concepts,” Secunda says.

Bloomberg is already offering improved services for mobile users. In the past, customers could access information services on a portable computer via a dial-up connection. To support such services, Bloomberg had massive phone banks in New York and other major financial centres around the world. Maintaining those phone banks was expensive. Now the same services are provided over the Internet at a reduced cost to Bloomberg, Secunda says.

By linking to existing Web content, Bloomberg can put its internal resources into developing new services. “We had a way of looking up ZIP codes and looking up plane schedules. Now we’re deciding whether our systems are better, or if we should just link to the Web,” Secunda says. “We have more options because we have the ability to transport Web content to our customers.”