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EBay rethinks its data center design with sustainability in mind

Sales growth was outstripping eBay's data center design until its CIO introduced a more sustainable and economical approach to IT.

LAS VEGAS -- It might come as no surprise that a company founded on the principles of sustainability -- through paperless commerce in preowned goods -- also would take an economical and environmentally friendly approach to its data center. But when Mazen Rawashdeh, vice president of operations at eBay Inc., revealed his company's revamped data-center design strategy at the Gartner Data Center Conference here this week, attendees took note.

Founded in 1995, eBay for many years experienced a one-to-one relationship between the growth in its data center capacity and its infrastructure costs. By 2007, its transaction sales volume was pushing the company's data center design well beyond its limits. Every second, $2,000 worth of goods were traded among 90 million active users in 32 countries; the result was 93 billion database calls and 50 terabytes of incremental data every day.

"We realized that our platform was unsustainable due to exponential growth," Rawashdeh said. "It would have required building multiple data centers annually." In an "aha" moment for the company, leaders came to understand that "the cost of running the site would negatively affect the business," he said.

The first task was to understand cost and efficiency drivers, according to Rawashdeh. Because of the cost of maintaining multiple data centers and numerous software licenses, about 80% of the technology budget was fixed and couldn't be changed overnight -- which was what the San Jose, Calif.-based company needed to do to remain viable at the end of 2007, he said.

Company leaders implemented policies to break that data-center design structure and consolidate its facilities with leased commodity hardware, less power-hungry servers and open source solutions. At the same time, management aligned business goals and IT resources with a common metric: cost per watt.

Leasing leads to faster upgrades, fewer capital expenses

EBay had always purchased its servers, but the days of using fully depreciated hardware are over, according to Rawashdeh. Leasing servers enabled eBay to greatly reduce capital expenses while refreshing hardware to take "full advantage of new technologies within a reasonable window," he said.

The strategy hit home with conference attendees including Mark Dietrich, division leader of Enterprise Infrastructure Services (EIS) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, Calif. "I'm going to explore that on Monday morning," he said.

The EIS division at LLNL already leases all of its 1,900 desktops to "take advantage of the technology refresh cycle without much thought," Dietrich said. "It's our new model. We have to take that into the enterprise data center and explore options. We need to find ways to do a whole lot more in an environment of fixed budgets -- to break free from that and grow in capacity and capability."

Data center design efficiencies hinge on metrics

In the past, every team in eBay's IT department optimized performance according to its own metrics, Rawashdeh said. The data center team optimized for power and cooling and so forth; the server team, for transactions per second; and the network team, for bandwidth.

We need to find ways to do a whole lot more in an environment of fixed budgets -- to break free from that and grow in capacity and capability.

Mark Dietrich, division leader, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

"We normalized all these metrics to focus on efficiency of power and energy in our data center," Rawashdeh said. "Transactions per second is no longer our primary metric; it is transactions per watt, dollars per watt. The focus on a common metric helped us do more with less." Indeed, energy consumption at the company dropped by 70%, while in 2009, the total worth of goods sold on eBay was $60 billion.

Metrics drive behavior, and therefore eBay had to change its culture as well. The company established clear, measurable goals, and "over-communicated" them to people in large groups, small groups and one-on-ones, Rawashdeh said. This is the biggest task, he said: constantly dealing with different groups and common goals. "As we established common metrics across groups and looked at infrastructure as a whole, everyone got on the bus. The moment your team understands the why -- and you have an open line of communication -- the outcome is phenomenal," he added.

However, establishing a common metric across the organization is different for every company that's going down the path of a more economical, green data center design. "You need to tie it to the business; you want people to embrace the metric in their hearts and always innovate," Rawashdeh said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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