Back in 1995 when there was very little activity on the World Wide Web — indeed, when few individuals or organizations knew quite what to make of the Web — the Federal Supply Service of the General Services Administration (GSA) was pioneering e-procurement. This was before most companies even had brochure-ware sites up and running, let alone transactional sites, and a full year before the public could buy anything from Amazon.
"We were already operational while Amazon was still beta testing its site," recalls Al Iagnemmo, Director of the E-Business Division of GSA's Federal Supply Service. "Of course, most people are surprised to learn this," he says. "Not just because the public generally assumes that Amazon and a few other companies pioneered the use of the Web for e-commerce, but because they generally don't think of government agencies when they think of innovative IT organizations."
And yet it makes perfect sense that the GSA — the centralized federal procurement and property management agency created by Congress to improve government efficiency and help federal agencies better serve the public — has been and continues to be a leader in the use of technology for online procurement.
Of course, GSA Advantage! did not emerge fully formed. While the vision that launched it — to enable government employees to save money on purchases — is as relevant today as it was in 1995, the site began quite modestly by listing the GSA's national stock numbers (NSNs) on the Web. At the time, there were 16,000 NSNs. Today, nearly 11 million products and services are listed on GSA Advantage!.
Prior to the launch of GSA Advantage!, government personnel were limited to searching for and purchasing items using a limited number of hard copy vendor catalogs. GSA Advantage! constituted a quantum leap forward in government procurement. By creating this comprehensive, online marketplace, the GSA enabled government agencies as well as taxpayers to benefit from a single, streamlined purchasing process and from the discounted prices that could only be achieved through the combined buying power of federal civilian and military customers.
Specifically, GSA Advantage! replaced:
- Direct contact with multiple vendors
- Manual placement and tracking of orders
- Offline use of other systems to reconcile orders
- Retention of paper copies of GSA schedule documents and catalogs
- Manual, time-consuming research using paper catalogs to find products and services
It wasn't long before GSA Advantage! was receiving accolades from all quarters. Forbes magazine called it "The Mother of All Digital Marketplaces." It won a CIO Magazine Web Business 50/50 Award as one of the top Web sites in the United States. It has been repeatedly recognized by the Computerworld Honors Program as an example of "innovations that are leading the global IT revolution."
The most telling accolade, however, is the rate at which GSA Advantage! has grown over the past decade.
In fiscal year 1996, its first year of operation, $5 million in purchases were made on GSA Advantage!. For fiscal year 2006 that number is expected to be $550 million. That's an 11,000 percent increase in sales over the past decade. Looking at this growth from another perspective, in the same time frame, 2.4 million orders totaling $1.5 billion have been placed using GSA Advantage!. Iagnemmo estimates that GSA Advantage! users save an average of $25 per order over the old catalog-based system of ordering.
"In just the past two years we've doubled the number of vendors, products and customers on GSA Advantage!," says Iagnemmo. "We average about 300 new registered users on GSA Advantage! every day. It's really mind-boggling when you think about it. The system and its user population just keep growing."
In all, there are 11 million products and services available on GSA Advantage! and nearly half a million registered customers. 2,500 orders are placed each day at an average of $724 per order.
Sybase Products and Services Key to Success
Asked to cite the critical factors for the site's phenomenal success and growth, Iagnemmo doesn't hesitate: "Great Sybase products and great support from Sybase Professional Services. From the beginning, we've known that speed and reliability would be the critical factors for our success. That's why we chose Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) to power GSA Advantage! right from the start. As the system has grown over the years, we've employed additional Sybase technology to provide additional flexibility and functionality while maintaining the performance and reliability our customers expect."
In addition to multiple ASE databases, GSA Advantage! also employs Sybase Open Switch and Replication Server to ensure continuous availability, Sybase EAServer to host and run Java and J2EE components, and Sybase IQ for reporting and business analytics.
"One of the reasons the site is as popular as it is," explains Iagnemmo, "is that it rarely goes down. And on those infrequent occasions when we do experience a hiccup of some kind, we can fail over to another server so our users generally don't even notice it. The site's reliability is due in large part to our Sybase infrastructure and to the talent and dedication of the Sybase Professional Services team working here to maintain and continually improve the site.
"GSA Advantage! is not a static environment," adds Iagnemmo, "so I'm constantly challenging our Sybase Professional Services team to look ahead and figure out what it's going to take to support our accelerating growth."
Sybase Professional Services: "Exceptional Dedication and Support"
There are 15 full-time Sybase Professional Services (SPS) consultants working onsite at the GSA. Of those, six are dedicated to GSA Advantage!. The remaining consultants work on a variety of other GSA projects, but frequently pitch-in to assist with the maintenance, monitoring and ongoing development of GSA Advantage!.
"Our team includes seasoned consultants with a diverse set of skills," says Steve Souza, SPS Project Manager and Principal Consultant at the GSA. "We've got developers and DBAs as well as Sybase product experts with deep knowledge of ASE, Open Switch, EAServer, Replication Server, and IQ. Our primary roles include server administration, which includes doing backups, restores, server upgrades and performance tuning; system monitoring to proactively identify and remedy potentially disruptive situations; custom software development; and knowledge transfer regarding Sybase products and emerging technologies."
Souza adds that because of Sybase's heritage of open-architected products and because of the close communication between Sybase SPS consultants and their technical support colleagues, members of the SPS team are often able to identify the source of a non-Sybase problem in the complex GSA Advantage! environment and recommend a fix.
"The dedication and support we receive from Sybase Professional Services is exceptional," says Iagnemmo. "Just to give you one example, we had a server go down recently early in the morning. That triggered a page that went out to me and a number of other people including the SPS folks. One of the SPS consultants was in his car on his way to work when he received the page. Knowing the importance of the site being up, he pulled off to the side of the road, fired up his laptop, fired up his AirCard, connected to our backup server in Chicago and activated it. Because of his quick action, I doubt that any of our customers even knew we were down. Support doesn't get any better than that."
Innovation Drives Growth
Much of the growth of GSA Advantage! has come in the areas of customized interfaces to the site and new functionality.
One type of interface — a PunchOut — was created to provide interoperability between various government organizations' back-end purchasing systems and GSA Advantage!. PunchOuts allow employees in government agencies to access GSA Advantage! from their own e-procurement systems, enabling them to shop local catalogs as well as GSA Advantage! catalogs, obtain approval at their respective agencies to enforce internal procurement policies, and seamlessly integrate their financial systems to automate the reconciliation process. By PunchOut enabling their e-procurement applications, agencies gain greater control over maverick purchasing, realize lower costs associated with purchasing from the government price schedule, and enjoy increased levels of purchasing reporting and tracking. The GSA has created PunchOuts for the Department of Labor and the State of Virginia.
The other type of interface is a Virtual Store. The Virtual Store is an extension to GSA Advantage!, customized to incorporate agency procurement rules, banner, logo, and content such as agency specific schedules and blanket purchase agreements. The GSA has created Virtual Stores for the Department of the Air Force, Department of Agriculture and the Veterans Affairs Department.
Another recent innovation that has driven the site's growth is e-Buy an electronic Request for Quote (RFQ) system designed to allow Federal buyers to obtain quotes for services, large quantity purchases, big ticket items, and purchases with complex requirements. While GSA Advantage! sales as a whole grew by 43 percent during the most recent fiscal year, e-Buy grew 62 percent in terms of the number of RFQs posted in the current fiscal year.
Thanks to Sybase, We Have the Flexibility, Functionality and Power We Need
"I think it's fair to say that GSA Advantage! is clearly meeting the needs of our constituents," says Iagnemmo. "Our biggest challenge is keeping up with the growth of our user population and their ever-growing expectations. Also, thanks to our Sybase infrastructure and the talent and dedication of our Professional Services team, we have the flexibility, functionality and power we need to keep ahead of the demand curve and maintain the system availability and performance that are so critical to customer satisfaction."