NASA pilots online bidding

NASA piolots online bidding

NASA is experimenting with an RFP system that would let vendors submit proposals electronically through the Acquisition Internet Service for deals up to $500,000.

Space agency will expand tests that let users do procurements on the Web

BY William Jackson

GCN Staff

The NASA Acquisition Internet Service, which posts agency solicitations online, has begun a pilot to accept vendor proposals electronically.

The Electronic Request for Proposals project 'got us partway there,' said Bob Brummett, business systems manager for NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. 'The next step is to get an answer back.'

Using off-the-shelf digital signature and forms software, E-RFP has been accepting proposals for selected small acquisitions since late last year. The pilot will handle secure Hypertext Markup Language transfers for larger purchases beginning this month via the Integrated Messaging Exchange from Tumbleweed Communications Corp. of Redwood City, Calif.

There is nothing cutting-edge about the E-RFP pilot except for end-to-end use, Brummett said, and it is 'old technology applied in a relatively novel manner.'

NAIS, a 5-year-old program hosted by Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala., to provide acquisition information via the Web, connects servers at each NASA field office to make solicitations available from a single site, at All NASA synopses and competitive solicitations for more than $25,000 are posted, and the Internet site has replaced paper documents for all acquisitions up to $500,000.

Vendors can register for e-mail notification of procurements as they are posted on NAIS. But until the E-RFP pilot, responding to solicitations has remained a paper process. Ames wanted to change that without reinventing the wheel.

Leave it to them

'We don't believe the government ought to be involved in software development,' Brummett said. Much lip service is paid to using commercial software, he said, 'but not a lot of people are practicing it. Programmers want to program, they don't want to buy commercial and integrate it.'

Brummett and his team integrated Informed Filler from Shana Corp. of Edmonton, Alberta, to make forms that can be downloaded with a free client reader. The client uses the Entrust/WebCA certificate authority manager from Northern Telecom Inc. With
a digital signature the document is locked from top to bottom as a legally binding contract, he said.

The handful of small procurements made so far with E-RFP have been handled by
e-mail, because the proposals did not exceed 300K. 'The mail system handled that fine,' Brummett said, 'but as we scale up, we're going to have a problem with multimegabyte objects.'

NASA Ames is integrating Tumbleweed IME with the Entrust public key infrastructure so documents can be exchanged in secure HTML. The digital certificate management and messaging exchange software reside on a Sun Microsystems Ultra 2 server running SunSoft Solaris. The forms currently are on an Apple Macintosh server but will be moved to a Unix box, Brummett said.

The implementation pitfalls are not on the server side, he said, but on the client-side installation. That could be avoided by putting the function on the Web, but 'you can't digitally sign a Web page, you can only sign an object. So you have to have an object-based system,' he said.

Unfortunately, the tools in use have not been customized to make them 'idiot-proof,' Brummett said. 'The tools are very robust, and robustness equals complexity. This takes a more intelligent person at the desktop.'

Few at first

Because of the complexity of using the system, procurement officials at Ames will limit the pilot at first to a small number of large procurements.

'Unlike the real world, we hold their hands a lot,' Brummett said of vendors participating in the pilot. 'We are finding there are a lot of horribly configured desktops out there, and they aren't ours.' Moving documents through firewalls also is a problem, and the Ames staff must make sure the firewalls are configured properly.

The minimum client system needed to use E-RFP must have at least Microsoft Windows 95 and 64M of RAM. ''


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