E-catalog pilot raises doubts
- By Brian Robinson
- Apr 17, 2000
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
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
"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.