No. 13: EBay

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2006-04-07 Print this article Print

Portable apps propel online auctioneer.

How does eBay's information-technology staff juggle the company's constant acquisition sprees, surging network demand and more daily transactions than Nasdaq? The key is flexibility and scalability, according to James Barrese, eBay's vice president of systems development. "We not only have to innovate on a regular basis, we also have to innovate at scale," he says, meaning the company's systems and applications must expand and grow as needed. "With 180 million users and new acquisitions, we sometimes need to turn on a dime."

To enable this, developers at the online auctioneer, which ranked No. 13 on Baseline's list of the smartest companies, work with portable applications, based on what are called data abstraction layers that are not tied to any particular architecture. Abstraction layers allow developers to write applications for different platforms without having to know the details of the underlying technology—in this case, the type of database or data source.

By using abstraction layers, an application that may have been written to work with the company's internal architecture of Sun Solaris machines and Oracle databases can be quickly ported, if necessary, to eBay's external platform, with its mix of IBM blade servers, Microsoft Windows NT and Java applications. These applications can then find themselves in front of both eBay's 8,100 employees and its millions of online customers, performing more than two billion searches a month and trading $1,500 worth of goods every second.

Employing these portable apps, Barrese says, saves time, effort and, most importantly, the cost required to duplicate efforts.

These applications also allow the company's operations staff to be more flexible when it comes to balancing loads on the network, he says, giving them the option of reapportioning certain activities without the rewriting or software engineering that would be necessary in a traditional application development environment. In addition, this flexibility allows the company to adjust to rapid growth, whether that involves a newly acquired subsidiary, a traffic spike surrounding a hot new auction item or a 30% rise in customer sign-ups, each of which it has experienced over the past year.

Much of these application solutions tend to be developed in-house. "We use some open-source technology when we can," he explains, "but in some cases, when you have thousands of servers that need to be online 24 hours a day, we need architectural constructs that just don't exist out there yet."

The bottom line in I.T. supporting a rapidly changing company like eBay, Barrese says, is anticipating what may happen next and adjusting your capacity planning accordingly. "We have the standard challenges any I.T. organization deals with," he says. "But for us, scale is key. It has to scale at an extreme level." —John McPartlin


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