NIH changes online shopping to let the seller beware

When users log in, they
fill out a form describing what they want to buy.

The National Institutes of Health has unveiled what it believes is an easier way for
federal buyers to buy hardware and software online.

The system, called Procurement Vehicle Management, rejects the standard shopping cart
method of online purchases in favor of a system that puts the burden on the
vendor—not the buyer—to pick the right equipment, NIH officials said.

“The emphasis is on service,” said Elmer Sembly, outreach and education
director for NIH. “We are giving the end users the ability to choose.”

As it now stands, most online federal buyers read virtual catalogs and point and click
on each item they want to buy. The selections are then loaded into a virtual shopping
cart. The vendor inventories the items, charges the buyer and ships the items, with little
feedback on whether the buyer has made appropriate purchases.

Companies, and especially small businesses, are handicapped by the shopping cart system
because they don’t have the staff to update the extensive online catalogs, Sembly

That puts the burden for knowing the intricacies of the technology on the user’s
shoulders, said Everett Carpenter, information technology manager of the project at NIH.

“Under the shopping cart system, the user has to know exactly what they are
looking for,” he said. “You can miss things, like buying printers and failing to
buy toner.”

NIH officials decided to change the rules. They hired Information Flow Inc. of
Gaithersburg, Md., to create a new system. Bob Timney, Information Flow’s president,
said he came up with a system that gives more power to the buyers and makes it easier for
vendors, too.

The system, which will be launched from the NIH Web page sometime this summer, supports
the Electronic Computer Store II contract, and will let buyers purchase hardware or
software from 47 companies.

When users log in, they fill out a form describing what they want to buy. They can be
as specific or as general as they want, Timney said. For example, a buyer can indicate he
is looking for 200 computers to build a network for a document management system.

The user can choose which companies he would like to send the request for price quotes.

The database server at NIH is a Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant 7000 with a 54G hard
drive, 128M of RAM, three 200-MHz processors and RAID Level 5 storage. A Microsoft SQL
Server database holds requests for quotes, price quotes from vendors and purchase
authorization forms.

The Web server is a ProLiant 2500 with 512M of RAM, two 200-MHz processors and RAID

The Web server, which uses Microsoft Internet Information Server, facilitates the
shopping application and connects users to the database. The networks are linked on a
TCP/IP network.

Timney said Information Flow employees wrote the software using ColdFusion Version 3.1
from Allaire Corp. of Cambridge, Mass.

Company employees use the requests to do the shopping for the buyer. When vendor
employees research the request, they create a package of products and prices, and send the
results back to the government shopper.

“This eliminates the burden on the end users to know exactly what they need,”
Timney said. “It will allow them to look at the proposals that come in and get the
best value.”

The system also removes the need for companies to maintain updated catalogs online,
Sembly said. 

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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