GSA builds open-source contracting app

'We've put a million person-hours into coding the mainframe over the past 20 years.'

'Don Heffernan, CIO of the federal supply service

David S. Spence

The Federal Supply Service has skipped more than 20 years' worth of IT history and moved right to open-source software, Web services and digital certificates for the new eOffers system.

The General Services Administration agency has simplified its workload by accepting online applications for FSS IT schedule contracts. At the same time, it has preserved a long-standing mainframe investment.

'EOffers is our first significant venture into Linux,' said Don Heffernan, the agency's CIO. 'We developed for Linux primarily because of its stability and our desire to expand open-source work' in preparation for an open-source trend he expects to continue.

The new system, which could serve other GSA schedules by Oct. 1, converts a multistep paper process fraught with time-consuming data entry errors to one that GSA hopes will save hours and provide consistent information. Until now, vendors have mailed their proposals to FSS. Contracting officers manually entered the data and then mailed back revised offers to the vendors.

FSS annually processes more than 1,000 vendor proposals for schedule contracts, Heffernan said.

In the next few weeks, FSS officials expect to make the first electronic award of a new schedule contract, Heffernan said. The Veterans Affairs Department also will use eOffers for its schedule applications.

'This will be an easier, faster submittal process for schedule offers,' said Pat Mead, FSS assistant commissioner for acquisition management. 'We did it to make the process better for companies making offers and for contracting officers evaluating the offers.'

On July 12, FSS also will introduce a new way for vendors to modify their schedule contracts online. EMod will be open to all schedule holders instead of only IT contractors, and it will use much of the same technology as eOffers, Heffernan said.

FSS worked with contractors from Unisys Corp., Silanis Technology Inc. of St. Laurent, Quebec, and Gesso Digital LLC of New York to develop EOffers. They used Java2 Enterprise Edition, Apache Web server freeware and Tomcat application server software, and a back-end database management system from Sybase Inc. The server hardware came from Dell Inc.

The front end of the portal uses Java Server Pages to connect through Web services to applications running on the mainframe.

The e-signature component uses Silanis software running on a separate Dell server under Linux. FSS built it as a module, so that it could be available for the entire agency to use. Heffernan said he is discussing that option with GSA's CIO, Michael Carleton.

FSS spent $1.4 million on the development effort, which was about $225,000 less than the cost for a Unix environment, Heffernan said.

'This will help us see how Linux works in an area where we usually use Unix,' he said.
FSS previously stored the schedule information in a proprietary database on a Unisys mainframe under the MCP operating system.

20-year effort

'We've put a million person-hours into coding the mainframe over the past 20 years,' Heffernan said. 'We've updated it, and a lot of core GSA applications still run on it, but we wanted to keep eOffers outside so we could use Web services, Linux and other innovative technologies.'

EOffers requires businesses to first obtain a digital certificate from one of the contractors for the E-Authentication e-government project.

They fill out the FSS schedule application online, using Web services to pull in their vendor information, such as company name, address, tax identification number, and Dun & Bradstreet number.

For now, the FSS mainframe daily downloads the vendor information from the Defense Department's Central Contractor Registration system, but eventually eOffers will connect directly to the registry through Web services. All vendors who do business with the government are required to register with CCR.

A finished submission undergoes review by an automatically assigned FSS contracting officer, who returns an Adobe Portable Document Format version to the vendor for approval. The vendor signs the PDF version with a digital certificate, creating an encrypted hash mark to verify authenticity of the document and the signer. The contracting officer also electronically signs the contract, Heffernan said.

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