World Wide Web can offer federal buyers an EC way to shop
It won't happen tomorrow, but there's a big push under way to force value-added
networks and other parties that channel business to the government to streamline their
operations with Internet technology.
As new value-added networks gain approval to use the Defense Electronic Commerce
Processing Nodes (ECPNs) in Ogden, Utah, and Columbus, Ohio, they probably won't have the
choice of dialing into a port by modem.
"We will likely drop the dial-up," said Lebbeus Curtis, chief of customer
support for the Defense Department's Electronic Data Interchange Engineering Management
Division. "There is a significant overhead cost in that process, and it has limited
our throughput to those customers."
Lebbeus said Internet connections are more efficient.
The ECPNs will mainly support the Internet File Transfer Protocol. For
e-mail, they already use the Simple Mail Transport Protocol and will add the Multipurpose
Internet Mail Extensions protocol for binary attachments.
Curtis said he suspects a few trading partners will resist the move, but the bandwidth
requirements for participating in the growing service mean "they flat-out can't get
there by dial-up anymore."
The ECPNs funnel requests for proposals, requests for quotes, contract award
announcements and some purchasing announcements to DOD's registered value-added networks.
The VANs in turn distribute them to vendors that want to sell to the government.
Government organizations also can carry out small electronic procurements through the
Federal Acquisition Network, known as FACNET. Its transactions actually travel across the
government's developing EC infrastructure, of which the ECPNs are a major part.
When the ECPNs first opened for business about two years ago, they handled just four
EDI transaction sets. Now they accommodate several dozen.
Curtis said the ECPNs work with two types of VANs. One simply stores and forwards files
to customers' mailboxes. The other provides extended value-added services, or VAS. Some
VAS providers have developed client software to help customers filter the requests for
quotations and requests for proposals or translate data into EDI transaction sets.
Loren Data Corp. of Marina del Rey, Calif., is
developing a Web EDI system for customers that have an Internet connection, said Todd
Gould, Loren's president and technical director.
The Gould product uses the Secure Sockets Layer of Netscape Communications Corp.'s
Commerce Server. It encrypts Web data for transmission, then the recipient's browser
decrypts it. For details, visit http://edi.ld.com/.
RFQs and RFPs lend themselves well to a Web interface, because a Web server can act as
a bulletin board and as a preparation tool for responses. But not all customers are ready
to move into invoicing and remitting through their browsers.
Curtis said that most trading partners want a more secure route, such as EDI with full
encryption and digital signatures.
The ECPNs currently are developing interfaces for health applications that will allow
transfer of patient records. "Each transaction must be encrypted and digitally
signed," Curtis said. That calls for digital envelopes and security models to
safeguard the data in transit.
Curtis said the health records will be protected by Fortezza encryption and by the
algorithms of RSA Data Security Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., among others.
For a list of government EDI resources, visit DOD's electronic commerce site at http://www.acq.osd.mil/ec/.
The Secretariat for Federal EDI coordinates vendor registration and government trading
partner information. See http://snad.ncsl.nist.gov/fededi/.
DOD's EC implementation conventions appear at http://snad.ncsl.nist.gov/fededi/DoD/edi-main.html.
Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
GCN's parent, Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.