DLA navigates EMall hurdles

DLA navigates EMall hurdles

DOD site gets an upgrade to build vendor confidence, make buying easier

By Bill Murray

GCN Staff

Upgrading an online mall used throughout the Defense Department is like competing in a hurdle race.

The DOD EMall team has identified three hurdles that lay ahead: alleviating vendors' concerns that they will lose brand identity, making searches quicker and building a site that makes procurement easier.

The EMall, in its current incarnation at www.emall.dla.mil, lets users do cross-vendor searches to get pricing for products and services from more than 330 companies, said Claudia 'Scottie' Knott, director of the Defense Logistics Agency's Joint Electronic Commerce Program Office.

'We're evaluating other architectures that will address the branding issue,' she said. DOD EMall presents a dilemma to a vendor that wants to brand a Web site'users don't visit vendors' sites when they compare pricing, Knott said.

To make the program work for both DOD buyers and sellers, DLA this fall will test software from Ariba Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., that will let users link to vendors' sites from EMall, said Don O'Brien, DLA's EMall program manager.

Bounced back

Users can place orders through the vendors' sites but get passed back to the main EMall site to complete transactions, he said.

O'Brien took over as EMall program manager in late May. During the past 18 months, DLA has boosted the number of items available through the site from 3 million to 4.5 million.

Through the EMall initiative, DLA is weaving together online buying sites within DOD, such as DLA's own program and the Navy's Electronic Commerce Online effort [GCN, March 8, 1999, Page 35].

The current EMall search engine pulls data from remote catalogs in response to a user's query, but the user does not visit vendors' Web sites.

A system that would send users to vendors' sites and then back to the main site 'would be a supplementary architecture that would enable vendors to keep their identity,' Knott said. 'We are building EMall for customers; vendors are there to compete based on pricing.'

EMall features everything from aircraft canopy covers and toilet paper to computers and office supplies. Sales for fiscal 1999 reached $50 million.

There are 17 vendors that host their entire commercial catalogs on EMall. An additional 316 vendors put parts of their catalogs online, O'Brien said.

Knott said vendors can 'plug catalogs right into EMall' to work with the site's search engine from PartNet Inc. of Salt Lake City.

To protect data exchanges, the site uses the Secure Sockets Layer protocol as well as encryption technology from RSA Data Security Inc. of Redwood City, Calif.

For its interactions with vendors, DLA has set up a virtual private network using the VPN Suite from PGP Security Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.

Meanwhile, to speed up the site's response time when users make pricing queries, DLA is installing Next Point S3 software from Next Point Networks of Westford, Mass.

The program will help DLA monitor transactions and spot bottlenecks. Then DLA can figure out how to address problems, O'Brien said.

Despite the length of response times, using EMall is still faster than checking individual vendors' Web sites, O'Brien said.

Finding traffic

A main problem arises at the links that DOD sites have to the Non-Classified IP Router Network. From region to region, the gateways between NIPRnet and the Internet vary, he said.

'No one knows where the bottlenecks are,' O'Brien said. 'It's a matter of debate.'

DLA and Defense Information Systems Agency officials have been meeting to figure out ways to improve bandwidth, he said. 'We want to get a bigger pipe, as well as one that's more dedicated' to EMall, he said.

Some efficiencies will be gained later this summer when DLA moves the systems that host EMall together, O'Brien said.

DLA will move its server in Salt Lake City, a Sun Microsystems Enterprise 4000 running SunSoft Solaris 2.7, and its server in Falls Church, Va., a Dell PowerEdge 2000 running Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, to one location.

Centralizing the servers and linking them directly to NIPRnet rather than having queries routed across the Internet and then to the DOD network 'should eliminate a bunch of hops and improve response times,' O'Brien said.


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