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What eBay looks like under the hood

Eric Knorr | July 1, 2016
eBay CTO Steve Fisher offers a guided tour of the architecture, technologies, and best practices of one of the world's largest e-commerce operations

Across the industry, initial excitement over OpenStack's ambitious "cloud operating system" has given way to disappointing adoption rates and complaints about the project's sprawling complexity. But according to Fisher, eBay has made OpenStack work:

I think the secret was that we were just committed to it and we put a large team on making it work. We built a lot of infrastructure where, if it wasn't doing what we needed, we built what we needed and then contributed back ... In a lot of areas it was more just like building a platform as a service around it. That's not OpenStack. But OpenStack is a lot less productive if you don't make it really easy for your users.

I asked Fisher about the problem of "upgrades in place" with OpenStack. New OpenStack versions arrive twice a year and you want to take advantage of improvements and new features without bringing down the entire infrastructure to do so. He offered a frank response:

It's not the easiest thing in the world to do, I'll be honest. It's actually a challenge we also just faced somewhat for our own services as we upgrade them and it's something that we're working to get better at. It's not easy. I wouldn't say we've got it down so that major changes coming in just kind of magically show up and everything works fine.

Going forward, Fisher is excited about the flexibility that Docker containers bring to the entire development lifecycle -- he's a big fan of clustering with Kubernetes, too. "We're rebuilding our broader continuing integration infrastructure to be fully container-dependent," he says. "It's one of the biggest things that we're doing, honestly, in our infrastructure this year and probably into next year."

Where does that leave OpenStack? Fisher says that OpenStack will remain the central coordinating system for managing eBay's infrastructure, although "it just will be moving and provisioning containers," he says. But what about the dramatic utilization benefits of containers on bare metal that, say, Google currently enjoys?

I think that ultimately we'll be able to take advantage of that as well, but probably not this year. This year we'll be more using containers [for] applications, libraries, whatever it is that you need to deliver your service on a server ... Someday I think virtualization will no longer be needed for us.

As Fisher observes, virtualization was really created to slice up a single PC, and that's obviously not the world we're in.

Managing scale

How much of what eBay does can be applied to enterprise IT? The most obvious answer is that many enterprises are growing their own large-scale Internet operations, in which case, obviously, they can learn from the Internet giants like eBay.


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