After Technical Difficulties, Multistate E-Mall Back in Business

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- E-Mall, a multistate electronic commerce initiative, is back on track after several months of delays, which were primarily caused by technical difficulties in installing a critical security solution.

E-Mall, a pilot project launched last October, is designed to enable states to combine their purchasing power to get better volume discounts, with all transactions being handled electronically across a secure network.

To date, 15 contractors take part in E-Mall, and several states have begun to take advantage of each others' existing contracts, said Gary Lambert, deputy state purchasing agent for Massachusetts, which is heading up the project. The project could see as many as 500 users by the end of the summer.

But the spurt of activity began only after the E-Mall project office spent nearly three months sorting out problems with the public-key infrastructure solution, which is needed to secure the electronic transactions.

PKI is based on the use of digital certificates, which verify the identities of the parties involved in the transaction, allowing them to retrieve the keys needed to decrypt the transactions.

But the way the digital certificate software initially was configured did not work, causing problems with the E-Mall server and with the system issuing the certificates, Lambert said.

In sddition, the E-Mall office encountered problems with the electronic procurement software packages that states use, which are based on the emerging Open Buying on the Internet standards, Lambert said.

The E-Mall staff found that OBI did not provide as much functionality "out of the box" as expected, Lambert said. Initially, the staff had hoped OBI would meet 80 percent of its requirements for E-mall functions, but it turned out to meet only about 60 percent. "We are not surprised, but we are a little disappointed," he said.

The E-Mall team finally resolved the problems in February. But by that time the project had lost two of its original seven participants, the states of Washington and South Dakota. Washington dropped out because its existing digital signature was too restrictive to enable it participate. It is rumored that South Dakota dropped out because of organizational problems.

As a result of the problems, the E-Mall pilot, which was scheduled to end in June, will run through September, Lambert said.

-- John Stein Monroe (jsmonroe@fcw.com)

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