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eBay buy signals retail-as-a-service cloud

X.Commerce marks the spot

eBay has bought a tiny PHP specialist as a precursor to rolling out a massive cloud commerce platform-as-a-service for retailers, complete with an app-store fed by web developers.

On Monday, the web giant said it had snapped up shopping engine specialist Magento, which will be merged with X.Commerce, an open-source platform group it announced at the same time. eBay had already owned 49 per cent of Magento, after it invested $22.5m in March 2010.

The new X.Commerce group will work on delivering and then extending a hosted, customizable and modular e-commerce platform for use by eBay's army of retailers.

X.Commerce consists of 500 employees from Magento, eBay, and PayPal, and it's run by 10-and-a-half year eBay veteran and former head of PayPal engineering Matthew Mengerink.

Mengerink tells The Reg that his group is creating an app store that will be populated by PHP, Javascript and AJAX e-commerce apps from developers. These apps will be intended for merchants. Apps will be integrated and will work together via a planned software layer called X.Fabric. Magento will provide the storefront via Go, a software-as-a-service it built with eBay that gives merchants a system for marketing, promotions, payment, checkout, and shipping.

The whole lot is due to be delivered in time for eBay's X.Commerce Innovate conference, between October 12 and 13, in San Francisco, California, Mengerink said.

Joining the X.Commerce group as chief technology officer is Yahoo!'s former vice president for social platforms Neil Sample. He joined eBay from Yahoo! last summer, as eBay architecture chief. Sample is reporting to Mengerink and an PayPal spokesperson told The Reg that Sample had joined up "because of the opportunity that X.Commerce offers."

Mengerink describes what eBay is building as "a commerce operating system" that will give developers one place where they sell their commerce apps and where retailers can built exciting web stores without needing to search for e-commerce modules from across the web that they must then stitch together.

"There isn't one place, one stop solution that has one integration," Mengerink said. "We are going to fill out the operating system so every aspect of commerce is available from the store front or the API suite in a consistent fashion that makes it easier for the developers to extend."

But what Mengerink is calling an operating system could also qualify as a "cloud". It sounds like what eBay has planned is a platform-as-a-service for businesses just like the Salesforce cloud. Salesforce customers install apps to their account from a central app store that they can use to customize the basic Salesforce platform, a platform that holds all their transaction and customer data, provides security, compute elasticity, and that provides a transaction layer that allows all the applications to talk to each other and work.

For this to become reality, eBay would need a cloud-computing and storage layer that the existing eBay service currently lacks. Last year, eBay was one of four companies who'd agree to test and develop Microsoft's cloud, Azure, in a metal box called an appliance. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Fujitsu were the other three. But the Azure appliance has missed all deadlines known to man since being announced last summer.

eBay could go with Amazon, but the company is too much like a competitor. The answer might be OpenStack, the open-source cloud compute and storage project co-founded last year by NASA and web host Rackspace.

While eBay is not an OpenStack member, Sample attended the OpenStack Design Summit in April, where he spoke about eBay and OpenStack. Sample called the open-cloud increasingly viable, saying it has progressed a lot in the nearly 12 months since it was announced by Rackspace and NASA from a point where eBay would not have considered running it.

Based on Sample's comments at that architecture event here, it looks like eBay is edging towards OpenStack because the code is open "versus a black-box and a vendor, who will someday get back to us and say 'yeah, yeah, we'll get you that feature in six months."

"There's been a ton of progress and we are very optimistic," he said of OpenStack.

PayPal would not comment on whether it is going to pick OpenStack for X.Commerce.

eBay's decision to pick PHP, Javascript, and AJAX and to move away from its Java and C++ roots is both interesting and timely. Mengerink said he is not religious about languages, but he noted that PHP has a "great resonance with the broader developer community, more than Java". eBay is keeping a Java interface to the new system for enterprise customers. Java is also used on other areas of eBay.com. It had evaluated PHP on the main site but decided to stick with Java. ®

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