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The Performance Arms Race Continues in Financial Services (Part 1 of 2)

Since joining Akamai just over 2 years ago I have had the privilege to meet with Financial Services Institutions (FSIs) around the world and hear firsthand about their opportunities and challenges.  It never ceases to amaze me how performance continues to play such a critical role in this industry, and how passionate and competitive people are about this.  This passion exists firm-wide in many cases, and at the individual level.  People take this personally.

Prior to joining Akamai I was one such person. I experienced the thrill and rewards of making a web site faster, of moving from #11 to #1 on a performance benchmark, and knocking off competitors along the way.

In this two-part blog, I will examine why performance continues to play such an important role in financial services.  Today in Part One, I will dive into user experience.  In Part Two, I will present the ROI of performance - always a challenging topic.  In the future I am going to tackle tablets.  Is the industry meeting the performance expectations for tablet users?  How can FSIs make them faster?  I have some answers.  So stay tuned.

Part One: The Performance Arms Race:
One of the major drivers in the arms races is that the performance expectations of users continue to increase. In fact, a recent study shows that almost 50% of users expect a 1 second page load time.  And don't forget, most of the performance tools and benchmarks only measure the time to the last byte to the browser, and do not measure the actual render time to the user. So if you are happy that your page load time is 1 second on a benchmark, remember that time is likely double to the user looking at the screen.

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It shouldn't be necessary to continue with these studies.  Let's just conclude that from now on, users expect instant Internet access.  And in the world of mobile, the expectations are equal.  A 2011 Compuware study shows that 71% of global mobile web users expect websites to load as quickly, almost as quickly or faster on their mobile phone compared to the computer they use at home - up from 58% in 2009.

Fortunately, sites are getting faster.  Having spoken with many FSIs, when it comes to performance, I believe that the most competitive segment in the financial industry is brokerage.  Akamai is fortunate to count 8 of the Top 10 brokers in the 2011 SmartMoney Broker Survey as customers.  We have many more not on that list, from around the world.  I have met with nearly all of them, and performance is critical.  In many cases, they have ongoing performance improvement projects, and MBOs and bonuses tied to industry rankings.

The hard work of the brokerages is evident in the benchmark improvements.  Below are the rankings from the Keynote Brokerage Transaction Index, showing that the median performance of brokerage sites has improved from nearly 14 seconds in 2007 to close to 5 seconds today.

For those you unfamiliar with the benchmark, it is designed to measure how fast you can place a stock trade on a these brokerage web sites. It is a sequence of pages: Home Page, Trade Page, Trade Preview, Cancel Trade, and Logout.  It does not actually execute the trade. The response time reported is the sum of those steps.  The full methodology is explained here.

Considering that this is a 5 page test, the top ranked brokers on this ranking have amazingly fast sites.  Sub 4 or 5 seconds is extremely difficult.  That is less than one second per page. Hurray for the users!

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Using the publicly available data from Keynote, I have plotted this Index over time.  How low can you go?  Will we will see times under 5 seconds before the end of 2012?

Keynote Brokerage Transaction Index
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Source:  Keynote ® Systems - The Mobile and Internet Performance Authority TM - Keynote Broker Web Transaction Performance Index

Part Two: The ROI of Performance

The users have no doubt benefited from the improvement efforts from the brokers.  But what about the brokers?  Have their efforts paid off?  I will examine this in my next blog entry.  Stay tuned, and in the mean time I welcome your comments.

Rich Bolstridge is Akamai's Chief Strategist for Financial Services


Rich, this is good stuff. What is interesting to me is that these expectations of instant access are not specific to the financial industry - I are seeing increased emphasis on web site performance in our internal IT projects in aerospace/defense.

It would be really valuable if you and Akamai could identify any patterns or general guidelines for architecting and building high performance web based systems. A list of "do this, use that, avoid this other thing" learnings would undoubtedly be very well received. And training in this area might even be a revenue source.

Looking forward to the next installments.

Great article When do we get part 2?