Vendors vie for new FirstGov contract
- By William Matthews
- Jan 20, 2002
At least three major search engine companies and scores of other businesses
are competing to supply the new search engine for the federal government's
Web portal, firstgov.gov.
Inktomi Corp., whose donated search engine is now running on the site, is
among the bidders. So are search engine company AltaVista Co. and Web portal
giant Yahoo Inc. In all, about 80 other companies including consultancies,
technology vendors and Internet service providers are vying for the contract.
"It's amazing," Yahoo's Jodi Beshara said of the eclectic collection
of bidders. The number and variety of com.panies seeking the contract probably
reflect the depth of the downturn in technology work, she said.
The General Services Administration, which operates FirstGov, expects
to spend about $8 million during five years or about $150,000 a month
on a new search engine for the Web site, said Martin Wagner, chief of
GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.
GSA hopes to have "cutover to live production" with the new engine
by March 31.
Although FirstGov has free use of its current search engine for about
18 more months, the site has outgrown it, FirstGov officials said. They
want a new engine with more sophisticated search capabilities.
In a notice to bidders this month, GSA said it wants a search engine
that can search on documents in a variety of formats, such as PDF, HTML,
Extensible Markup Language, plain text and Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint, Excel
and Word. The current search engine cannot do all that.
The new search engine must be able to scan FirstGov's indexed content
in no more than a quarter of a second. The current engine can search the
index's 50 million current pages in that time; however, the index is expected
to grow to 200 million pages in three or four years.
Greater relevance of search returns is another requirement. The new
engine must do a better job of identifying the information that is most
likely to meet users' needs. In a search for "white house," for example,
the phrase " 'George Bush lives in the White House' should be rated higher
than the phrase, 'Al's house is also white,' " the GSA notice instructs.
Relevance and the high number of search returns produced by the free
engine were a problem during the early months of FirstGov's operation. Although
it is fast, the engine often returned tens of thousands of documents far
too many to wade through and often returned documents of little relevance.
FirstGov's current search engine was a gift to the government in mid-2000
from computer scientist Eric Brewer, co-founder of Inktomi. Brewer said
three years of free use of his company's search engine on FirstGov was payback
for government support of his early research.
Brewer established the nonprofit Federal Search Foundation (Fed-Search)
to run the search engine for FirstGov. Fed-Search will cease to exist when
FirstGov acquires a new search engine, said David Binetti, Fed-Search president.
But the foundation will happily go out of business, he added.
FirstGov has "gone way beyond what they were" when Brewer donated the
current search engine, Binetti said. "We have done what we set out to do,"
which was to get FirstGov going.
Brewer's donation gives Inktomi almost 18 months of experience running
a search engine for FirstGov, but Wag.ner, Binetti and others say that does
not give Inktomi an unbeatable advantage in the contract competition.
"There's always knowledge that the incumbent vendor builds up, but we're
kind of an open book," Wagner said. The sites that must be searched are
well defined and FirstGov's procedures are firmly set. "Anyone with the
requisite skills should be able to do it. There is not a high barrier to
entry," he said.
The bidders that already operate search engines undoubtedly scan many
of the same government Web sites they would be required to search for FirstGov.
"The only difference is we require searching all the pages," Wagner said.
GSA asked search engine vendors to submit contract proposals by Jan.
17. An award could be made by Feb. 28.
Technical requirements for the new search engine are posted at: www.eps.gov/EPSData/GSA/Synopses/128/GS00A02PDR0002
New search engine specifications include:
* Must handle 4.9 million page views a month now and 5.4 million in
* Must support 736G of data now and 820G in 2006.
* Must be able to index content in HTML, PDF, Extensible Markup Language,
ASCII and Microsoft Corp. Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
* Must crawl and index about 50 million government Web pages every seven days at present, and 200 million pages by 2006.
* Search response time for Internet users must not exceed 5 seconds.
* Vendor must propose a turnkey solution, including hosting of hardware
and installation, maintenance and operation of software.