Marketplace

For the E-Buyer, EDI Getting Easier

The key to California's plans to launch a system that state workers can use to purchase equipment and services via the Internet may be technology that Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Ariba Technologies Inc. has developed to make electronic data interchange (EDI) applications easier to use.

Although EDI goes hand-in-hand with electronic commerce, many potential electronic buyers have long viewed EDI as a stumbling block because it is so difficult to master. That view is beginning to change as a handful of companies have debuted products that make it simpler to develop and use EDI-based applications.

Ariba is just one player working on next-generation products designed to automate EDI-based procurements. Typically, those products support EDI's definition of standard formats for transmitting data in electronic transactions while providing graphical user interfaces and other tools to make the technology more manageable.

At a recent gathering of state purchasing officials in Phoenix, Ariba showed off an application that makes it possible to manage the procurement process from the time a buyer submits a request, through the time an order is generated, to the time of delivery. Other vendors showcased similar systems, including RFD & Associates Inc., (Austin, Texas), maker of BuySpeed for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. Also, OAO Corp. (Greenbelt, Md.) demonstrated a suite of tools for building low-end procurement systems, rather than large-scale efforts like California's.

The Ariba Operating Resource Management System incorporates an organization's business rules to define the process for creating, routing and approving purchase requests. The system also integrates with existing financial management, messaging and related applications.

Ariba's ORMS supports EDI transactions while providing a World Wide Web browser-based interface that walks users through the process of creating a request. This familiar interface lets the end user bypass any EDI-related training or special software requirements for their desktop, said C.J. Glynn, manager of corporate marketing at Ariba. End users also are able to access the system to check on their orders at any point in the process.

Easier EDI is crucial to the future of e-commerce, said Tom Carroll, an associate partner at Andersen Consulting. People new to the EDI arena "need that easy-to-use interface," he said, adding that Ariba's EDI products are an important element for the evolving California Statewide Procurement Network, due to be fully operational in February 2000.

Government interest in easier EDI technologies prompted a new alliance between Ariba and SRA International Inc., which is interested in advancing procurement solutions for state governments and federal agencies.

Ariba ORMS puts the procurement process "directly into the hands of the buyer," said Tim Cooke, SRA's vice president for state government solutions. "When they built this product, they built it to be extremely usable," Cooke said. Such ease of use is vital, he said, when an application is being put into the hands of so many users.

-- John Stein Monroe

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Pilot Project Sifts Through Online Catalogs

An abundance of new online catalogs is giving government buyers more places than ever to shop for technology products without having to leave their desks. But it also is making it more difficult for online shoppers to find just the right products.

To help navigate the online marketplace, the federal government is recruiting state and local government agencies to participate in a "catalog interoperability pilot" to test tools for searching online catalogs simultaneously. Sponsored by the U.S. General Services Administration and CommerceNet, an electronic commerce business group, the pilot is testing ways to search via a network of central search engines all the relevant product databases a buyer might need.

The pilot's developers say such centralization might eliminate the need for governments to build and maintain their own catalogs. But state and local agency officials warn that a host of obstacles-including the force of tradition and the segmented nature of state marketing-stand in the way of quick adoption by state and local agencies.

"There are extraordinary problems when using multiple jurisdictions," said David Gragan, director of purchasing for Texas and president of the National Association of State Procurement Officials. Piggybacking on the CommerceNet effort also may be complicated by varying purchasing policies among states, he said.

Dugan Petty, Oregon's state purchasing manager, said linked catalogs could be convenient for finding office supplies and other inexpensive items state and local governments buy frequently. "It may be a pretty effective tool for our folks to use," he said. But for larger, more complex items such as information technology equipment, state governments tend to award contracts to single vendors, and buyers can easily search those vendors' World Wide Web sites, he said.

Still, some states are keeping an eye on the project. Massachusetts, which has its own multistate electronic buying pilot under way, has expressed interest in joining the pilot program, sources said.

But while state and local governments decide whether to change procurement policies in order to use electronic purchasing systems, Commerce-Net is tackling some of the technical roadblocks to linking catalogs.

For example, searching across multiple databases is not as simple as it might sound. There is no standard for how data is stored in catalogs. "The quality and the integrity of the data has everything to do with how it was originally stored," said Jiyon Han, director of professional services for Veo Systems Inc. (www.veosystems.com), a Mountain View, Calif.-based company hired to work on the pilot.

"Some catalogs have just the item number, the price and a long text field describing it," which makes those databases difficult to search, Han said. Better catalogs have specific data fields for specific information. "We are able to drill down and do very accurate searches" with those types of catalogs, she said. Regardless of search capability, poorly organized catalogs have to be upgraded.

The CommerceNet pilot uses two tools from Veo Systems to help search for data contained in existing catalogs. The first is called Catalog Node, a utility that helps participating catalog operators convert their data into extensible markup language. XML is preferred over the more commonly used hypertext markup language because it has more detailed information on the content of a Web site or database. The other part of the system is the Aggregation Server, which functions as the equivalent of a Web portal search engine.

Still, speed depends on the efficiency of the search software and the organization of the catalogs, so those are areas targeted for improvement in Phase II of the pilot. "Now we are going to try to speed up the time needed for searches," said Terri Hobson, a program analyst for GSA's Office of Electronic Commerce. "We are going to do some things to broaden the scope of searches and to make it easier to use."

GSA and CommerceNet officials would like to see state governments participate in the next phase of the project, which will expand the use of the centralized search and include other online catalogs. The initial pilot incorporated only GSA's Advantage program, which lets federal buyers order IT equipment online, NASAs' Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement, and a vendor catalog supplied by Lexmark (www.lexmark.com).

For the apprehensive, the pilot's sponsors say catalog operators do not have to overhaul their databases to be able to participate.

"Nobody has to change the back end of how their data looks," said Ron Parsons, director of electronic commerce business strategy for CommerceNet.

-- Dan Carney

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Little Advantages Help EDS in Connecticut

How did Electronic Data Systems Corp. beat out two other giant systems integrators to win Connecticut's $1 billion information technology outsourcing contract? By gaining a lot of little advantages, according to the state's chief information officer.

"We felt all along that all three companies could do this job, but there were a lot of little things that led to an EDS win," said Connecticut CIO Rock Regan, who ran the competition. "It really came down to trying to measure the difference in how well the companies understood what we were trying to do."

What the state is trying to do is unprecedented: transform a patchwork of agency computer systems into a coherent enterprise centrally managed by a for-profit company. "EDS had a good understanding of our desire to look at this from a business perspective," Regan said. "It is not so much a question of how much bandwidth we are going to need but the business impact this will have on the state."

Before the project can get under way, the state legislature must approve Gov. John Rowland's choice of EDS, which beat IBM Corp. and a joint bid by Computer Sciences Corp. and the state employees' union. Many state employees continue to oppose the plan, so placating them is one of the biggest challenges for EDS.

Nevertheless, it's a huge victory for the company, as EDS vindicates a strategy of pursuing public-sector outsourcing on a grand scale. "This has been a long, long journey for us," said Bill Dvoranchik, general manager of EDS' Connecticut operations. "This is the fulfillment of an initiative we started three-plus years ago in trying to find a state desirous of going down this path.

"If you look at the outsourcing business, one of the visions or dreams that you have is to find a situation in which you can be totally responsible for the service delivery of the largest enterprise of government possible," Dvoranchik added. "It is exhilarating to think about doing this on an enterprise level as big as an entire state government."

To win the contract, EDS called attention to its experience handling large public-sector outsourcing projects, including a nine-year contract to provide IT services to more than 140 Australian government agencies. Public-sector experience also was high among its subcontracting team, which included Xerox Corp., Lucent Technologies and Unisys Corp., which in 1998 landed a major data center outsourcing deal with Pennsylvania.

The crux of the project is the migration of all of the state's computing operations to a more centralized management model in which EDS will partner with the state CIO. The proposal calls for creating a "Technology Transformation Center" to serve as the headquarters of the state's IT operations. EDS also has promised to vigorously recruit IT workers from the state government and the local area.

For its part, the state expects to begin heavy purchasing to create a standard systems architecture across the government. "The networking opportunities here are huge," Regan said, "but I think there will also be some significant midrange and desktop purchases and, perhaps more important, some software standardization."

EDS had a lot riding on the Connecticut contract. The company restructured last fall, creating a new government industries group to go after military, federal, state and local business. As a part of the reorganization, the company eliminated about 10 senior positions. Dvoranchik's job remained secure during that reorganization in part because EDS felt good about its chances in Connecticut, sources said.

"We had three different business units which we combined into one to better address the government market...because the boundaries between those are being reinvented and often get blurred with more and more money going from the federal government to state and local governments," Dvoranchik said.

The Connecticut win "will continue our focus on large programs that we feel are the types of programs that can help us leverage our competencies," he added. Other large programs include San Diego County's upcoming $1 billion computer outsourcing project. Dvoranchik said he expects that Connecticut's example will inspire other states and jurisdictions to outsource.

The timetable on the Connecticut project calls for the state to complete negotiations with EDS in early spring. At that point, an independent audit of the contract will take place, the findings of which will go before the Connecticut General Assembly. Unless Connecticut lawmakers shoot down the deal by a three-fifths vote, the contract will take effect.

But the state employees' union also may stand in the way. "Our strategy will be to do all that we possibly can to influence state legislators," said Rick Melita, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Employees Association, which believes most state employees are happy with their government jobs and don't want to work for EDS.

"I don't know who is going to win," he said, "but there are going to be many twists and turns before this is over."

-- Jennifer Jones

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Color Me Profitable

Apple Hopes Schools Have Taste for iMac

Polishing its new image, a rejuvenated Apple Computer Inc. recently debuted the industry's first computer "flavors." The iMac desktop computer is now available in blueberry, strawberry, tangerine, grape and lime-bright colors to follow up the teal version released last year.

Apple attributes at least part of its corporate rebound to education sales. During the third quarter of 1998, the company shipped about 70,000 iMacs (the unflavored variety) to schools and colleges, according to market research firm International Data Corp.

Later this year, Apple will release a consumer portable that company officials said will satisfy demand for its once-popular eMate computer.

"The eMate taught us that there is a very viable market for a durable, simple, attractive, low-cost unit that students can take around with them," Apple spokesman John Santoro said. With a price of $600 per unit, eMate had an installed base of about 90,000 student users.

-- Meg Misenti

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SGI Debuts NT Workstations

Silicon Graphics Inc., one of the industry's best-known developers of high-end, Unix-based visualization systems, introduced its first line of Microsoft Corp. Windows NT-based workstations, which company officials say will raise the bar significantly on desktop computer performance.

The announcement of the SGI 320 and 540 workstations for the first time brings SGI's high-end graphics and visualization technologies into the Windows NT workstation market and defines SGI as a dual-platform vendor, company executives said.

In the state and local market, SGI anticipates interest from transportation, environmental and public works agencies. Already, the California Department of Transportation has shown some interest in the new products' "visualization characteristics," according to Bert Wakeley, SGI's manager of state and local government programs. "From my perspective, the perception of SGI has changed for the better among state and local users," he said. "With these new products, we are now more of a player in the enterprise market."

In developing the new products, SGI wanted to use its experience with high-end workstations to capture a larger portion of enterprise computing sales. "The real design goal [for the 320 and 540] was to be industry standard [while] not sacrificing performance and capability," said Cliff Apsey, director of product marketing for SGI's workstation division. SGI leveraged the high-end graphics technology developed for its Unix-based Onyx and O2 workstation lines to design the new architecture for the Windows NT-based 320 and 540, he said.

The Intel Corp. Pentium II-based SGI 320 and the Pentium II Xeon-based 540 share what SGI calls its new Integrated Visual Computing Architecture. According to Apsey, the design of the new architecture provides a high-speed data bus capable of providing six times the performance of Intel's Advanced Graphics Port and up to 10 times the performance of standard Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) bus.

Central to the new architecture is the introduction of three chips designed by SGI that power the graphics engine, display and various input/output options, including Ethernet, audio and Universal Serial Bus interfaces. In addition, SGI's graphics engine comes with the memory controller and the core logic built-in, requiring up to 10 million transistors-more dense than Intel Corp.'s Pentium II processor, Apsey said.

The SGI 320, which will be shipped this month, will be marketed as a mainstream, high-volume system, Apsey said. Options include up to two 450 MHz Pentium II processors, 128M of memory-expandable to 1G-and three PCI expansion slots. The 540 workstation, which is planned for release in April, will feature up to four 450 MHz Pentium II Xeon processors, up to 2G of memory capacity and six PCI slots. According to Apsey, the 540 marks an industry first for combining such high graphics performance with a quad-processor system.

Government pricing for the SGI 320 will run about $4,455. It includes one 450 MHz Pentium II processor, 256M of memory, a 6.4G hard drive and a 32X CD-ROM drive. The SGI 540 costs $5,813. It includes one 450 MHz Pentium II Xeon processor, 128M of memory, a 9.1G hard drive and a 32X CD-ROM drive. SGI will rely heavily on the state contracts it has in place to reach users, Wakeley said.

"In the Intel world, the price [of the new SGI systems] will be attractive and the performance will be exceptional," predicted Jay Moore, a senior analyst of Windows NT workstations at the Boston-based research firm Aberdeen Group.

-- Daniel Verton

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Power, Price Drive Notebook Choice

300 MHz PII Systems Offer Options for All Needs, Budgets

Written and Tested by Dan Carney

Notebook vendors recently introduced a host of models that feature revved-up 300 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium II processors. But buyers face the same trade-offs with these machines as with past models. Lower-priced notebooks often are bulkier but offer more extras and longer battery life, while ultra-slim units with the latest peripherals can cost thousands of dollars more.

Organizations planning to upgrade to 300 MHz Pentium II notebooks need to decide what they care about most: affordability or innovation.

The seven notebooks we tested fell into the same two camps. On one side are notebooks from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Dunn/IDP Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc. that are larger and more affordable.

On the other side are lightweight, slim machines from Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. that cost more but have shorter battery life.

Our test center favored affordability. Our notebook comparison also emphasized performance and vendor support. Nonetheless, we found that all the systems we tested were of high quality. The only notebooks that didn't earn a 7.0 or better on our scale of 1 to 10 were the IBM and HP models, which were among the most expensive systems in the comparison.

This comparison marks the debut of two new benchmarks, SYSmark/98 1.0 and SYSmark/98 For Battery Life 1.0, both from Business Applications Performance Corp. Both benchmarks run scripts of popular applications and, therefore, can accurately predict how systems will perform in real office environments.

The Gateway Solo 2500LS won our comparison, thanks to the longest battery life, lots of extras and a middle-of-the-road price. It earned a final score of 8.06.

Toshiba's slim, well-equipped Tecra 8000 finished in second place with an overall score of 7.54.

Compaq's Armada 7400 finished third, with the fastest performance of the machines tested and a score of 7.47.

Federal contractor Dunn/IDP's 7.45 score and fourth-place finish were earned on the strength of the Extensa 712TE having a very low price and being a good all-around notebook.

Dell's Latitude CPi D300XT finished fifth with a 7.44 score, based on good battery life and the second-lowest price.

IBM and HP made two of the smallest, lightest, thinnest notebooks in the test, but their scores were handicapped by short battery life and high prices. IBM's ThinkPad 600E scored 6.95, and HP's OmniBook 4150 had a score of 6.49.

-- Dan Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va. He can be reached at dcarney@fcw.com.

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