eBay thinks outside with eBox

Initiative calls for auction kingpin to rebuild its systems for faster development--and maybe more hosted apps. Video: A look at eBay's eBox

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
BOSTON--eBay is rebuilding its technical infrastructure in a project that could lead to the e-commerce giant hosting applications from outsiders.

An initiative, internally referred to as eBox, calls for the company to rebuild the technical guts of its eBay.com site as a series of modular services, rather than a single, unified application.

The idea is that internal engineers--and potentially outside developers--can use these services as building blocks to construct new applications, said Eric Billingsley, senior director of eBay Research Labs, which is behind the initiative.

Billingsley is scheduled to outline the project, which he refers to as an "open platform," on Tuesday afternoon at the eBay developers' conference here. In an interview with CNET News.com on Monday, he described the technology and the company's goals in undertaking the services-oriented architecture.

eBox aims to make it quicker to build applications by providing pre-built services that can be combined to create new applications without extensive coding. All of the functions on eBay, such as search and inventory management, will be accessible as services via application program interfaces (APIs).

This service-oriented architecture should make it easier for eBay engineers to roll out features, Billingsley said. Once in place, these services could also be offered to outsiders who build eBay applications, he said.

"We will try (writing software) using this experimental framework. Now from there, it's not that far for external developers to build applications within that same framework and be able to run them inside the eBay system," he said.

In the second half of this year, eBay will start rolling out the framework internally.

Billingsley's hope is that eBay would next allow outsiders to use that same development framework, although a date has not been set for public release. The whole process will take about one or two years, he said.

Company spokesman Hani Durzy, however, cautioned that eBay has not made any decision on whether to open up eBox to outside developers.

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"That (research) group is inclined to explore all possibilities," Durzy said. "The decision is too far out to say with any kind of accuracy which way we're leaning."

eBay's proposed hosting plan brings to mind the utility computing-like services offered by Amazon.com Web Services, a division of the online commerce company that offers hosted computing power and storage.

The move would also be a significant extension to eBay's outreach to outside developers. Software programmers have become increasingly important to Web site operators such as eBay, Amazon, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, which are trying to create a healthy network of products and add-ons to their services.

Once completed, the eBox "application stack" will benefit eBay internally because internal teams will have fewer dependencies on each other when making product releases, which means faster development, Billingsley said.

Right now, by and large, eBay does not host third-party applications, Durzy said.

But Billingsley anticipates that the services-oriented architecture of eBox would invite many more outsiders to rapidly build eBay-hosted applications. Outside developers could even compete with eBay's own internal teams for certain site features, he said.

"The fact that we are all starting from the same framework of services is what makes it truly interesting. It makes a competitive environment that allows for survival of the fittest. I consider it an evolutionary system," he said.

eBay already offers outside developers access to its Web services via APIs--in a recent survey, the company's developer program ranked highest among other Web properties.

But eBox calls for these services, such as search or inventory management functions, to be more modular, rather than tightly linked into one large application. Billingsley envisioned developers competing to offer the best application for very specific functions.

"My dream is someday we have a perfect shopping experience for collecting glass monkeys in Vietnam," he explained. "I want to create a market and a system that is so open and easy to build upon that that becomes actual reality--that we could put out a request for a feature and have someone build it for us for 500 bucks."

The business model would be a profit-sharing situation with third-party developers, Billingsley said.

The services-oriented architecture includes a set of core services, or "kernel," and a "thin layer" of APIs, Billingsley said. The eBox initiative also draws on eBay Research Labs' work on grid computing.