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Web services power the eBay 'platform'

EBay's Web services APIs have transformed eBay from a simple online auction site to a development platform supporting a multitude of third-party applications.

BOSTON -- The world's biggest online auction site has transformed itself into a development platform thanks to Web services, according to the head of its developer program.

In his keynote presentation at the Web Services Edge 2005 show on Tuesday, Matt Ackley, senior director of the eBay Developers Program, described how 42% of the product listings on now come in through the company's Web services application programming interfaces (APIs). This is "leveling the playing field" for businesses of all sizes, he said.

EBay's online product forms are good for individuals looking to sell items collecting dust in their basements; however, many eBay sellers are fairly sizable businesses for whom it is impractical to fill out a form for every item they list. This drove eBay to create its Web services APIs in 2000. The APIs were initially only accessible to a closed network of developers, but were eventually opened up to the community in 2003.

By making eBay accessible through Web services, developers are empowered to build custom, third-party applications that leverage eBay's functionality.

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"Rather than go to eBay to auction, vendors are asking how they can embed the eBay auctioning system into their own procurement system or delivery system," said Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst at Waltham, Mass.-based ZapThink LLC. "SAP is using [eBay] to sell its excess inventory. It's really interesting that we're starting to see sites as platforms, as outsourced processes."

But Schmelzer's colleague, senior analyst Jason Bloomberg thinks exposing Web services APIs is only the initial step. The challenge lies in embedding these service interfaces into processes, through the power of service-orientation.

Ebay opened its platform to increase business efficiency for its partners and to allow a broad community of developers to build more innovative applications.

"What enabled eBay to become what it did today is Web services," Ackley said.

EBay has become the leader of what Ackley calls online "demand aggregators." In a single day, it absorbs 11 million bids, makes 9 million database calls, pumps out 40 million e-mails and spews out a log file that's a terabyte in size.

Over 3 million of its 135 million users are using software applications that are enabled by the eBay Web services APIs, according to Ackley.

Open sourcing eBay

EBay is now considering open sourcing the eBay software development kits because the company itself releases updates so infrequently, Ackley said. Open sourcing eBay's code base would allow for greater innovation, broader platform support and help address eBay's internationalization needs.

Choosing the right protocol -- SOAP, XML-RPC or REST?

EBay itself initially used XML over HTTP for Web services communication, but is now moving toward a purely SOAP implementation, according to Adam Trachtenberg, manager of technical evangelism at eBay.

SOAP is well-supported by the Java and .NET platforms and is tightly integrated into many integration development environments and tools. It also defines standard locations in which to pass information such as the SOAP

and tags.

But SOAP also has its drawbacks. It is not fully implemented in all languages, including the open source PHP, Perl and Python, Trachtenberg said. Nevertheless, SOAP still allows for more complex Web services interactions than Representational State Transfer (REST) or XML-RPC.

"XML-RPC handles 80% of what SOAP does and it's only 20% as complex, but SOAP has better buzzword compliance," Trachtenberg said. "[However], you should probably skip using XML-RPC, as it only makes sense when you control both ends of the wire."

REST is the most minimal of formats; it is baked right into the HTTP protocol. Using REST, the client makes Universal Recourse Identifier (URI) requests using existing HTTP methods such as GET, POST, PUT and DELETE.

"REST doesn't have the overhead of XML-RPC or SOAP. People really use it because it's so easy," Trachtenberg said. "You can map REST and SOAP to the same engine. Ebay is looking to have a more centralized engine for business logic fronted by different interfaces."

Versioning is a key issue for eBay. The company rolls out new code every two weeks and one of its key challenges is to avoid "breaking" the code of third-party applications that are dependent on its APIs. EBay addresses this problem by being backwards compatible with calls to older versions of its APIs. It maintains previous versions of the platform and accepts version numbers in the client API calls.

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