E-bidding has USDA on a roll

E-bidding has USDA on a roll

When two agencies within the Agriculture Department decided to create an electronic bidding system, they used something old to make something new: an interactive Web application running on a Cobol mainframe system.

'It's very rare for a mainframe,' said Dave Liem, technical leader for the Domestic Electronic Bid Entry System, which automates bid soliciting and receiving over the Internet for the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Farm Service Agency.

The project was launched in 1998, and DEBES went live in May last year.

USDA said the system has streamlined the bidding process by letting AMS or FSA users post comments clarifying a solicitation for bids or asking questions of vendors. It has also created more competitive bidding by letting vendors edit their bids right up until the deadline, and has saved money on operating expenses.

'It has worked beautifully,' said Marcia Williams, an agricultural marketing specialist with FSA. 'It's probably the best project we've ever worked on.'

Williams acted as FSA's technical lead on the project, helping to develop user requirements.

AMS and FSA together buy more than $1.2 billion worth of food each year to distribute through school lunches and supplements to American Indian reservations, meals at prisons and other federal programs. Until DEBES, every part of the process was done electronically except for the solicitation and acceptance of bids.

The innovative approach was as much a matter of necessity as anything. 'At the time we started on this, we didn't have any Web servers,' Liem said from his FSA office in Kansas City, Mo. He did have developers who were rich in Cobol mainframe programming know-how.

When the project was given a Web server that could work with a Cobol Common Gateway Interface, the project team decided to try it that way, he said.

Once that decision was made, things fell into place. 'The advantage you have is that if you already are a mainframe shop and your developers are Cobol-conversant, putting the application on the Web is fairly easy,' he said.

DEBES is written in IBM MVS Cobol and runs on an IBM OS/390 mainframe computer. It uses Web390, a Hypertext Transfer Protocol server from Information Builders Inc. of New York, to transform the mainframe system into a Web application and server. Vendors submitting bids to DEBES need only a Web browser, Liem said.

Registration necessary

Vendors must register with DEBES to access the system. Transactions are secured through the Secure Sockets Layer protocol and the mainframe's Access Control Facility-2 security.

A marketing specialist at AMS or FSA posts an invitation for bids through the site. Agency users can then post comments clarifying the request and ask questions of vendors to ensure they can support their offers.

Vendors create and submit bids on the site, but they retain access to their bid data and can change it right up until the bidding period closes.

When bidding is closed, the agency opens the bids for review and can ask vendors for additional information before sending the bids to the agency's legacy system, where bids are evaluated and contracts awarded.

The DEBES system mght have started as an ad hoc project for making the most of the tools at hand, but it has proved to be very convenient and effective, Liem said.

A mainframe provides a powerful and secure host for a Web server, the technical staff at FSA was capable of configuring the system, and DEBES runs on the same platform as the data it uses, which allows quick access.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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