E-catalog pilot raises doubts

The Government Catalog Interoperability Pilot, a key element in the federal

government's push toward a World Wide Web-based open buying environment,

has been judged a success by its participants, at least in showing the feasibility

of the concept. Installing a full-scale version of the pilot, however, is

another matter.

Developing and testing a government-specific interoperable catalog system

could be both expensive and time- consuming. Meanwhile, development of commercial

alternatives has been accelerating and will probably outpace that of any

government solution — a situation likely to occur more often as a growing

number of agencies take on ambitious electronic commerce projects.

Government sponsors of the interoperability pilot now must choose whether

to follow through with the original plan or change gears and embrace a commercial

solution. Because of its scope, the decision is sure to influence other

agencies' e-commerce development plans.

A report on Phase 2 of the interoperability pilot, which is set to be

published by the end of this month, is expected to include a call for a

comprehensive review of commercial products that might readily meet the

government's requirements.

"In retrospect, the pilot [project] probably had too ambitious of a

scope," said Mary Mitchell, deputy associate administrator for e-commerce

in the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

"If you are not able to execute the pilot in four to six months, then [technology]

changes so much that the results are no longer so interesting."

There are probably commercial solutions available that provide features

not considered in the pilot, she said, "and the assessment of the pilot

will likely include a recommendation to look at those sorts of systems."

The pilot was led by CommerceNet, an international nonprofit consortium

of companies that develop e-commerce solutions on the Internet, and included

a range of industry vendors and a number of government agencies, including

GSA, NASA, the Defense Department and the National Institute of Standards

and Technology. A number of other agencies also provided procurement officials

to be the "users" in the pilot.

Launched in late 1998, the pilot sought to test the feasibility of a

system that would allow users in one agency to search, order and pay for

products offered in online catalogs intended for other agencies' use. Users

would, for example, be able to transparently and simultaneously search GSA

Advantage, NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement, DOD's

EMall and other sources for the best deal.

The first phase of the pilot set the technical foundations for the interoperable

catalog framework using Extensible Markup Language (XML), which defines

a common format for data used in business transactions over the Internet.

Phase 2, launched in April last year, added key scalability and integration

components including registry services, security features such as public-key

infrastructure (PKI) and digital signatures, the use of government purchase

cards for payments, and a description of an architecture that would aggregate

inquiries to different catalogs into a single response to the user.

There were some unexpected problems. It was discovered that many agency

firewalls, for example, were not configured to allow some of the processes

necessary for searching the different catalogs and ordering from them. "We

didn't anticipate there would be so many different approaches across the

agencies," said Todd Barborek, a principal consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers,

which will compile and issue the independent report on the pilot. "There's

a great range of different security policies that are applied across the


That produced access problems for users. Carole Shebby, administrative

officer in the Office of Grant and Acquisition Management at the Department

of Health and Human Services, said she had difficulty getting her smart-card

reader to work. The reader was designed to provide users with secure access

to the pilot system.

"We had trouble configuring our computers and our security to work with

the [pilot] software that was provided to us," Shebby said. "In some cases,

when I tried to use the software, I wasn't able to shut down my computer."

On the occasions the software did work, she was able to use the card

reader to get into the pilot system but not often enough to effectively

evaluate it. "The concept is a good one," she said, "but the physical barriers

have to be overcome first."

The firewall issues "did make installation [of the security] something

of a challenge," admitted Gary Moore, federal technical director for Entrust

Technologies Inc., one of the vendors selected to provide smart-card PKI

for the pilot. However, he claimed that those people who did gain access

to the full infrastructure and capabilities of the pilot found it "fairly

easy to use."

"Once agencies understand what the security policy issues are and that

they will be protected within the [interoperable catalog environment] outside

of their firewalls, then we think they will be willing to conform their

policies accordingly," he said.

A broader problem is in seeing a clear path forward because of the limited

scope of the pilot. Though it did show that all the various components work

and that end-to-end interoperability is clearly possible, the pilot still

left major questions.

"We only went between five [government and industry] catalogs," said

Mary Ann Nash, project manager for eFed, one of the biggest suppliers of

commercial e-commerce solutions to the government. "The components did all

work, but whether that would remain the same as more catalogs are added

would depend on how they were structured."

The main bottleneck would likely come on the Internet itself, she said,

and problems would increase as the volume of catalog inquiries rises. For

eFed, the solution has been to bring all the catalogs it works with in-house.

"By proving the concept in a relatively confined environment, we showed

it can work but we also showed how complicated it is," said Judy Cohen,

senior principal in the government e-commerce solutions group of American

Management Systems Inc. "Is it scalable to an industrial-strength system

in the near term? I don't think so."

However, there's also a problem with commercial solutions, she said.

While those solutions are available now, and they are scalable, none of

them yet meets all of the objectives of the pilot. But people are working

in that direction, she added.

The pressing question for the government is which approach to take.

Should it develop the pilot into a full-scale system and take the time to

test it? Or should it go with an incomplete commercial solution that can

be up and running in a short time and reap the benefits from that, while

working to develop the system into a more complete government solution?

"The ultimate result of the pilot might be a realization that things

are changing too rapidly in the commercial sector for this piloting approach

to provide a true solution for the government," said Barborek. "In that

case, it will probably end up that the government will have to fit itself

more to the commercial sensibility than vice versa."

Ron Parsons, director of public-sector alliances for CommerceNet, agreed."I

think the sense was that, with the way that industry has moved on these

issues, a government-specific pilot just isn't feasible anymore, he said."

—Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.


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