Web Services Lead the Bidding

 
 
By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2002-02-11
 
 
 

Since its founding in 1997, uBid Inc. has played the role of a full-service provider to better-known, self-service, online auctioneers such as eBay Inc. and Yahoo Inc.s auction site. While the eBays of the world expect buyers and sellers to handle shipping and payment, uBid frequently ships goods to buyers from its warehouses and provides warranties.

Over the past summer, however, uBid officials decided to make the company more like the now-profitable eBay, hosting more self-service, consumer-to-consumer auction deals. The problem facing uBid officials was how to get lots of items from consumers posted quickly on uBids site. The solution: Partner with multiple third-party auction aggregators, creating real-time links to their sites using Web services technologies such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and WSDL (Web Services Description Language).

uBids Web services call paid off. Starting in October, the company created flexible online links to four aggregators—third-party companies that provide sellers such as individuals and small businesses with services to post items on multiple online auction sites and manage the transactions. Thats allowed uBid to increase the number of auction items for sale on its site (www.ubid.com) from an average of 500,000 at any given time to about 2.5 million. Thats still far short of the 7 million items eBay has on its site at any given time, but its been enough to increase uBids revenues from self-service, C2C auctions by 10 times, said Pablo Ugaz, the chief technology officer at uBid, in Chicago.

uBid is joining a small but growing list of early adopters of Web services technology. Typically, those that have embraced Web services are, like uBid, concentrating on connecting with a few business partners or integrating internal systems running on different platforms, such as Microsoft Corp.s programming language and Java, experts say.

To get its Web services project off the ground, uBid used systems developer Tallan Inc. Ugaz figures that the $100,000 consulting project paid for itself within the first month of the Web services being in place by increasing revenues.

For both uBid and Tallan, the timing of the project was prophetic. Just three months before the project started in July, Microsoft launched Version 2.0 of its SOAP tool kit. That set the stage for Tallans suggestion, and uBids ultimate decision, to use the tool kit to develop integration with aggregators as XML-based Web services.

Since uBids site is based on Microsofts Internet Information Server, in creating an interface into uBids back-end auction system, Tallan programmers started by creating a set of Component Object Model objects that defined functions to which uBid wanted to provide aggregators access. They include functions such as the ability to define a product, add an auction, receive updates on an auctions progress and exchange auction fees. Those objects were then exposed as Web services through the SOAP tool kit, which generated a SOAP interface that allows the invoking of a Web service and a WSDL file that describes that service, said Jens Jorgensen, the uBid project manager at Tallan, in Chicago.

Once the aggregators agreed to work with uBid, they set up calls from their auction systems to the Web services through the appropriate SOAP tool kit. That took each aggregator about two weeks, Ugaz said.

Not surprisingly, before launching the integration, Tallan took extra steps to prove the viability of Web services. To verify that, as standards, SOAP and WSDL would work, even between modules created with different tool kits and in different languages, Jorgensen tested a service on Java, Perl and Python with success.

Before turning to Web services technologies, uBid tried to integrate with aggregators. One aggregator, Infopia Inc., tried tying into uBids auctions through screen-scraping technology—a tedious process that didnt allow real-time communication between uBid and Infopias systems and unraveled when uBid made major site changes, Ugaz said.

With Web services in place, the next challenge for uBid is to increase the number of its connections with auction aggregators. Already, aggregators account for about 80 percent of uBids C2C listings. The company aims to add four or five aggregators this year, Ugaz said.

The additional connections should help not only to beef up uBids C2C listings but also to increase visitors to its core uBid Direct service, which accounts for 95 percent of its business.

"Its kind of viral," Ugaz said. "People who sell are necessarily also buyers."

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