GSA will refresh online ordering through Advantage

Later this year the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service will unveil the newest version of its online purchasing site, bringing faster searching and ordering capabilities to customers and better posting features to vendors.

GSA Advantage has been online for almost five years, and while it has changed over time to include more schedules and features for federal buyers, this is the first major renovation in a while, said Ed O'Hare, FSS' deputy chief information officer. "When we started Advantage, your options for running Web sites [were] limited," O'Hare said.

Working with Computer Technology Associates Inc., the company that GSA first contracted with to help design Advantage, the agency will almost completely redo the site and the technology behind it.

"We're really going through a complete rearchitecture of GSA Advantage," said Mark Phillips, executive vice president and chief operating officer of CTA's systems group. "It was really ahead of its time when it was first deployed, but now it's fallen behind."

With Advantage 5.0, coming online around October, GSA will move the entire site to its own application server to provide faster delivery of pages and information. "That allows you to support a lot of people without degrading the speed," O'Hare said.

CTA is replacing the old text-based search of products and services with a document- and knowledge-based search. This will allow federal buyers to perform more accurate searches for the increasingly complex products and services available through the site, especially as more are added from the information technology schedule.

"The real basis is we want to make it faster and easier," O'Hare said. "We need a model that allows a person to locate those things."

FSS also is adding a replication server to ensure 24-hour, seven-day availability of Advantage, and it is adding several other customer-service features.

"We're making available the kinds of functionality that people are getting used to on the commercial e-commerce sites," Phillips said. This includes online interactive help such as customer call-back and e-mail updates on the status of orders.

"People start taking for granted the types of features they expect to see there," Phillips said.

This lack of features is one of the reasons federal buyers often bypass Advantage to go directly to a direct vendor or reseller's World Wide Web site, according to federal market consultant Mark Amtower, president of Amtower & Co. But just adding the functionality may not be enough to bring in the business GSA may like, he said.

"I think procurement people may look at it, people with credit cards may look at it, but it's not Mecca," he said.

GSA and CTA also will build a new database for the increasing number of products that will be available through the online catalog, making the system more reliable than if the agency simply kept expanding the existing database, according to O'Hare.

For vendors, FSS plans to support Web-based Extensible Markup Language transactions instead of the old electronic data interchange-based transactions, which many vendors have complained are behind the times. This will enable GSA to draw product information directly from vendors' Web sites rather than forcing GSA staff to update the information themselves, O'Hare said.

"The vendor doesn't have to give us EDI, just a Web page, and we'll draw off of that," he said.

But the change may not come at a good time for vendors, Amtower said. Trying to bring the new version of Advantage online in October means that much of the work on the vendor side will be done in August and September - the very heart of the busiest season for federal vendors.

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