The General Services Administration’s migration of its FedBizOpps.gov website to its beta.sam.gov portal will not be remembered for its smooth transition.
The first three or so days were fraught with slow load times, infrastructure problems and a site that wasn’t ready for prime time.
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Judith Zawatsky, the assistant commissioner in the Office of Systems Management in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, said her office was not only prepared for the transition problems, but ensured the site rebounded quickly over the last week.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge. We knew we were facing a very large data migration and a lot of users,” Zawatsky said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Network. “Our good news story is that we didn’t shut down federal procurement. We knew when we launched, people were experiencing delays accessing beta.sam.gov … in some cases up to 2, 3 or 4 minutes. Once somebody has been into the site the first time, it cached on their system and that latency improved, but it was not perfect. We went through that for about 72 hours. We had pre-positioned a team offsite of the operational team, the product owners, the product managers, our technical team with GSA IT and our customer service [experts] because we would like to pray for the best and plan for the worst. They worked and went through the system constantly. They brought in some extra engineers, GSA IT was fabulous. We had Sagar Samant (GSA’s associate chief information officer for acquisition IT services) on site, supporting the engineers, going through all of the code and looking for opportunities [to improve the system].”
Zawatsky said despite the initial problems, beta.sam.gov saw more than 20,000 users, including an average of 1,600 to 2,000 concurrent visitors on the site at any one time, in the first week. Agencies posted more than 2,000 opportunities.
“We have had actually an extraordinarily low number of help desk calls, even at the launch of it, the maximum help desk calls were about 200 to 250 with very little needed to escalate, meaning that the agents who were picking up the phone were able to say, ‘oh, yeah, go to this part of the site, or yes, you can do that or no, you can’t do that,’” she said. “We’re really actually very pleased with where things stand right now.”
GSA has been trying to upgrade FedBizOpps for much of the past year, but faced a series of delays — some their fault and others were cast upon them.
At the same time, the agency launched beta.sam.gov in 2017 and has been working to upgrade 10 systems under the Integrated Acquisition Environment (IAE) program since 2010.
When the day finally came to press the button to switch from the 2003 FBO.gov to the more modern, cloud based beta.sam.gov portal, GSA found what worked in the lab didn’t work in the live internet.
“We ran a lot of end-to-end user testing. We actually had a lot of people in bouncing on the site simultaneously, and then from a technical perspective, we bounced on the site,” Zawatsky said. “It’s an adventure when you move that many users and that much data on to the site. The goal is to make sure that we have the bandwidth, make sure that the cloud is ready for us make sure that there are no bottlenecks in the code. But I will never guarantee for this system or any other that there’s not going to be some piece of code that translates into a problem.”
One problem that the engineers discovered and fixed had to do with a video that automatically started to play when a visitor came to the site. She said GSA turned off the automatic play feature and that helped with some of the load balancing issues.
But more broadly, Zawatsky said she was unsure why the system worked in the test environment, but not when it went live.
“I talked to [GSA CIO] Dave Shive and we’re going to conduct a retrospective with the technical team and the operational team,” she said. “He and I are looking forward to bringing in someone who actually wasn’t involved in the launch to help us do that. We’ll have a better idea then. I am sure that the engineers from the technical side could point to pieces of code and load balancing issues [that are] very specific [to the problems beta.sam.gov faced].”
The retrospective, or post-mortem, will be important to addressing potential and real issues for future migrations, of which GSA has six more planned over the next several years, including the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation and the System for Award Management (SAM.gov).
“We won’t launch anything unless we think it’s going to work,” Zawatsky said. “You know, if you say to me, ‘it’s not going to work because Judith, there might be a minute latency on the system,’ that to me is not a reason to launch. I actually want to push the capability as long as we are sure that we can manage data integrity and that the procurement process of the award-making process or the grant-making process can continue the way that is mandated to do.”
Many vendors would agree that GSA shouldn’t launch a system upgrade unless it works.
Contractors expressed frustration during the first few days of the beta.sam.gov migration.
One vendor, who requested anonymity in order to talk candidly about the site, said GSA didn’t communicate the problems with the transition, which led to questions about why searches initially took forever, why requests were timing out and some of the other problems that arose.
“Did they properly load test the site prior to go-live?” the IT contractor asked.
Another vendor said they had problems with the two-step authentication system.
“The first step is to have a text sent to your smartphone which works, but you cannot set up your account until the second step has been set up. The second step is to establish another authentication protocol which does not work,” the vendor said last week in an email. “One method is to set up a special key, however when you go to do that it requests that you give a nickname to the special key and no matter what ‘nickname’ you try to give it, it errors out. Another method is to download authorization codes that you can use. When you attempt this it lets you download them but then gets stuck on that screen and never prompts you to enter one for validation.”
Still another vendor said the initial search capabilities were “a joke,” especially for live procurements.
Since GSA fixed the initial latency and platform issues, contractors haven’t expressed any new frustrations.
“We’re pointing them to the videos and the training that we currently have. And if we find that those really aren’t meeting the inquiries that we’re getting, then we will, by all means, add some new ones,” she said.
Now more than a week after the launch, Zawatsky said the site is running well and her office can focus on both the next system migrations as well as adding capabilities to beta.sam.gov portal.
“We are working with multiple vendors and contracting for development capacity through GSA’s COMET vehicle,” she said. “We have awarded two request for quotes through COMET. We have 15 concurrent teams working on new capabilities through two-month sprints.”
Beta.sam.gov started using the agile methodology in 2013.
“We feel very comfortable with the data that moved over from the legacy site to the new site, even down to I spend time just randomly going through opportunities and looking to see that the history is there,” Zawatsky said. “We really do pay attention to the feedback button. We have new Samtesting@gsa.gov, where people can sign up to be part of our testing and focus groups. This is very exciting to us, as we improve the user experience and we invite people to participate in the process with us.”