Grid system drives eBay‘s expansion plans

Grid computing is helping the trading site achieve its uptime goals

A massive computing grid helps eBay make changes to its auction website on the fly while maintaining a 99.94% uptime, says Paul Strong, a research scientist with the company.

While eBay designed most of its grid infrastructure, the company also wants to participate in standards-setting communities to bring more improvements to computer grid technology, Strong says.

Speaking at the recent GridWorld conference, held in Washington DC, he noted that eBay’s core business is hosting web-based auctions, not creating new grid technologies. “We don’t see ourselves as an IT development shop for development tools,” he says.

By working together on grid standards, participants can help “transitions be less painful”, he says.

EBay has made great strides in its back-end technology since the late 1990s, but the company still wants more improvements, including the ability to change the site’s code nearly instantaneously, Strong says. Right now, the company, which has more than 15,000 servers in its production environment, distributes new application code to its website every two weeks, he says.

EBay developers write about 100,000 lines of code each week and, using a traditional grid made up of about 350 Windows, Linux and Solaris computers, the site takes about 20 minutes to update with the new features, he says.

With 104 million items listed for auction on eBay every day, the company needs to keep the site running while those changes are happening, he says.

“We can’t afford to take the site down — it’s like changing the engines on a jumbo jet mid-flight.”

About US$1,608 (NZ$2,510) worth of merchandise sells on eBay every second, and a vehicle sells every two minutes on average, Strong says. A trading card sells every six seconds.

The site has seen huge growth since the late 1990s, he says. has gone from 54 million page views a day in June 1999 to 874 million in December 2005 and the site sent out 35 million email messages a day in December, compared with one million a day in June 1999.

The site’s uptime went from about 97% to 99.94% in that time period.

Still, the company would like more grid functionality. Strong says it would like to get closer to that mythical 99.999% up time.

“We break almost anything we use,” he says. “We’re pretty much at the extreme limit of what you can do with off-the-shelf technology.”

And eBay doesn’t want to wait to update the site every two weeks, he says. “We want to be faster; we want to be more agile.

“If someone comes up with a cool change that’s not that big, I’d like to be able to roll it tomorrow.”

Community standards will help drive improvements in grid computing, he says. “We believe everyone has something to contribute,” he told the audience. “We’d like to share ... with the community.”

GridWorld is organised by IDG Communications, which licenses Computerworld NZ to Fairfax Business Media.

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