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Technical problems plague eBay again

The auction site was down for three hours today, continuing a spate of recent technology problems.

    Popular auction site eBay is having technical problems again. The site went down for just over three hours this morning but is now fully operating.

    eBay said a database server failed at 6:11 a.m. PT, causing what eBay termed a "hard outage" until 9:22 a.m. Bidders could view and search for bid items but couldn't place bids, the company said.

    eBay executives attribute the spate of problems--today's is the third this month--to bad luck and a series of unrelated problems, not to heavy traffic on the site, where individuals may sell or buy items in auctions that generally run for a week.

    Although eBay insists the problems don't stem from large numbers of visitors, CEO Meg Whitman said last month that historically eBay's usage jumps after Christmas because as people unload unwanted gifts. Continuing problems would affect more users then.

    "None of these outages had anything to do with traffic," said Michael Wilson, vice president of site operations and product development. "The one today was just hardware--a database server failed and had to be restarted. It's a common enough thing. There wasn't anything that could have prevented it."

    Per eBay policy, any auctions scheduled to close today will be extended for 24 hours. Wilson said that before this month, eBay had fewer than 10 hours of unscheduled down time.

    One user whose auction was extended 24 hours worried that buyers of her Furbys won't be get them before Christmas. "If I cannot get them there by Christmas, I have lost all value of these items. Timing plays a major role in many auctions here," she wrote on an eBay user forum.

    Chief Financial Officer Gary Bengier said revenue to eBay would be delayed, not lost, and the outages would have no material effect on the company's earnings.

    eBay remains a Wall Street darling whose stock continues to climb steadily since its September IPO despite technology that continues to be overwhelmed periodically. EBay's stock closed today at an all-time high of 252.25, up 13.9375 from yesterday's record close. The stock traded as high as 262.25 in the day.

    "All sites should have plans to operate in failure mode," said Ken Allard, analyst at Jupiter Communications, who offered that advice last week after eBay's nine-hour failure on December 9. Two days earlier, eBay was offline for six hours.

    The December 7 and 9 problems were blamed on a software upgrade that went awry. The site performs four hours of routine maintenance on Mondays, and the December 7 downtime extended that by two hours. The site also was down for about an hour November 3 because of a hardware glitch and a construction crew knocking out the eBay's T-1 connection to the Internet.

    "A lot of sites fail occasionally," said Allard, who estimated in July that 30 percent of sites getting 1 million hits per day will fail for short periods. "They have to figure out how to support consumers and what their business philosophy is for selling online when they can't live up to their promise."

    Adding hardware, upgrading software, and performing maintenance are high-risk operations, which is why eBay schedules its weekly maintenance from noon to 4 a.m. PT on Mondays.

    eBay is not alone with this problem, notes Laurie Orlov, senior analyst at Forrester Research: "All e-commerce sites need to grapple with reaching the right level of infrastructure scalability."

    Earlier this month, start-up consumer electronics retailer was overwhelmed by responses to its offer of three titles for $1 for popular movies and CDs.

    "The site added 15 servers over the weekend to accommodate the volume," said spokeswoman Therese Wells, who said received 100,000 orders for the promotion, which ended today. The site uses Microsoft's Site Server Commerce Edition, running on Windows NT.

    In January,'s site was down for 12 hours--at the time the company was averaging sales of $1 million a day. Online broker eTrade has experienced well-publicized problems on heavy trading days.

    Jupiter's Allard says the problems are understandable and likely to continue.

    "The expectations on software vendors are enormous. If a site goes down for a couple of hours, it's a news story and consumers have very high expectations," he said. "They are constructing the most complex, highly scalable applications that have ever been brought to market."

    Adds Orlov: "All e-commerce sites have to look at the growth capabilities of their operating system, [memory]disk environment, processor, e-commerce software, and bandwidth connection to the Internet."

    Sites must prepare for the best case, "which is that people love their site," Orlov said. "These days on the Internet, if you're going to jump out with an undersized infrastructure, you're going to alienate people who are too impatient to stay around."