Grids help eBay do big business

Massive computing grid helps eBay make changes to its auction site on the fly while maintaining up time

A massive computing grid helps eBay make changes to its auction Web site on the fly while maintaining a 99.94 percent up time, said Paul Strong, a distinguished research scientist there.

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 said Tuesday during the GridWorld conference in Washington, D.C. EBay's core business is hosting Web-based auctions, not in creating new grid technologies, he said. "We don't see ourselves as an IT development shop for development tools," he said.

By working together on grid standards, participants can help "transitions be less painful," he added.

On Monday, the Open Grid Forum standards body officially opened for business, delivering on its commitment made in June to detail its goals during GridWorld.

EBay has made great strides in its back-end technology since the late '90s, but the company still wants more improvements, including the ability to change the site's code nearly instantaneously, Strong said. Right now, the company, with more than 15,000 servers in its production environment, distributes new application code to its Web site every two weeks, he said.

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, Strong said.

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 added. "We can't afford to take the site down," he said. "It's like changing the engines on a jumbo jet mid-flight."

About $1,608 worth of merchandise sells on eBay every second, and a vehicle sells every two minutes on average, Strong said. A trading card sells every six seconds, and a pound of the Korean food kimchi sells every minute.

The site has seen huge growth since the late '90s, he noted. has gone from 54 million page views a day in June 1999 to 874 million in December 2005, Strong said. The site sent out 35 million e-mail messages a day in December, compared to 1 million a day in June '99.

And the site's up time went from about 97 percent to 99.94 percent in that time period.

Still, the company would like more grid functionality, Strong said. EBay would like to get closer to that mythical 99.999 percent up time, he said.

"We break almost anything we use," he said. "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 added. "We want to be faster; we want to be more agile," he said. "If someone comes up with a cool change that's not that big, I'd like to be able to roll it tomorrow."

Improvements in grid computing is where community standards can help, he said. "We believe everyone has something to contribute," he said to the GridWorld audience. "We'd like to share ... with the community."

GridWorld is organized by IDG, the parent company of IDG News Service.