'Workarounds' keep SPS on track
- By Dan Verton
- Sep 12, 1999
After holding three major exercises to field test the Defense Department's troubled $326 million Standard Procurement System, the Air Force developed 340 technical "workarounds" to problems that would have made it impossible for the service to deploy using the system.
SPS is intended to automate the often tedious and complicated process that DOD procurement shops use to buy supplies. American Management Systems Inc. won the SPS contract in 1997 and based the system's development on a version of the company's commercial Procurement Desktop software that was modified to serve the DOD contracting community. DOD plans to deploy the system to 44,000 users at 860 locations worldwide.
Speaking recently at the annual Air Force Information Technology Conference hosted by the service's Standard Systems Group, Col. Andrew Gilmore, director of the Air Force Contracting Information Systems Office, said the Air Force held a two-week exercise in November 1998 to test and document solutions to SPS' shortcomings. Dubbed Procurement Force Experiment '98, the exercise resulted in the development of 340 successful workarounds to problems identified by SPS users - enough to enable the Air Force to use SPS during deployment, Gilmore said.
The two-week exercise came just one month after Air Force users identified 90 "functional showstoppers" in the software, Gilmore said. The exercise was followed by a third evaluation three months ago that put Version 4.1a of SPS through the same tests.
All the workarounds and solutions to the software's technical problems were archived in an official SPS Concept of Operations document that Gilmore said provides Air Force users a critical "bridge" between SPS and the Air Force's current contracting environment.
"It tells you how to get productivity out of SPS," Gilmore said. "With these workarounds [in place], we can deploy."
One of the more serious problems encountered by Air Force users involved the interface between SPS and a legacy system known as the Base Contracting Automated System. BCAS handles real-time transactions involving medical, supply, finance and other functions and relies on 222 "edits," or data field checks, to ensure that information shared between legacy systems is up to date and accurate. SPS, however, included only 57 edits, Gilmore said.
Because the legacy systems include the Defense Finance and Accounting System, failure to ensure data quality could represent "a critical showstopper," Gilmore said. "You could bring down the DFAS system" with corrupted data, he said.
To get around the problem, Gilmore's team developed a bolt-on application known as [email protected], which queries SPS, conducts all the edits on the data fields and tells users where the errors are.
The Air Force had to develop the application in-house. "If we had asked AMS [to do it], it would have been a whole lot of money and a whole lot of time," Gilmore said.
AMS declined FCW's request for an interview.
SPS also requires an interface agent known as SPS-I, which provides a more efficient and flexible way for SPS to communicate with BCAS, and prevents DOD from having to replace BCAS with SPS, Gilmore said.
SPS-I was designed to position data so that it can be used for reporting purposes through DFAS. A source familiar with the Army's deployment of SPS said he has "not yet seen an Army installation where this has been done cleanly."
An Army source said AMS has started to market Acquiline, a front-end system for entering purchase requests on the Internet and feeding these documents into SPS. This procurement would be in addition to SPS, and the Army has committed itself to purchasing the system, the source said.
Moving to SPS has been a costly and time-consuming effort for the Air Force, according to Gilmore, who said several legacy systems had to be canceled to find money for SPS deployment. In fact, SPS required the Air Force to upgrade base networks at more than 200 installations and replace many desktop systems with "fairly high-end" systems, he said. "It's supposed to be plug and play, but boy, is that a headache," he said.Other technical challenges faced by the Air Force during SPS fielding include complex data migration, mapping and conversion.
Gilmore said it took his team eight months to complete the mapping and conversion work, during which time it discovered that only 7 percent of the 16,351 commercial trading partners listed in the legacy database at Maxwell Air Force Base were active vendors. As a result, a data cleanup application was developed to compare these databases against the Central Contractor Registration database at the Defense Logistics Agency. That effort "saved sites months in cleaning up data," Gilmore said.
Chip Mather, senior vice president at Chantilly, Va.-based Acquisition Solutions Inc., said the trials and tribulations associated with the SPS program are not a surprise given the complexity and scope of the initiative. "No one likes the first software release, even with commercial software," Mather said. "Software maintenance is just a euphemism for continued development. Eventually they will get it right."However, contracting issues that are related to deployment have become very important, said Mather, who once worked as a contracting specialist for the Air Force. He noted that contracting officers increasingly are being deployed in the very early stages of conflicts, and he added that purchasing supplies within a country where personnel have been deployed takes pressure off of airlift requirements.
"Contingency contracting has come a long way from my days when [the Air Force] handed me a briefcase with $5,000 and a stack of IOU forms," Mather said.