Dell and Hewlett-Packard will need to align themselves with small businesses to tap a $5 billion federal contract to supply items such as laptops, servers, routers and storage systems. (Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

Dell and Hewlett-Packard will need to align themselves with small businesses to tap a $5 billion federal contract to supply items such as laptops, servers, routers and storage systems.

The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to pick as many as three companies by the end of March to share the five-year agreement, which has drawn interest from the top computer makers and IBM. Only firms with a maximum of 150 employees will be chosen as prime contractors, forcing large companies to woo smaller partners for work.

The boost to small firms is long overdue, said Cris Young, president of the American Small Business Chamber of Commerce, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

“It’s about time for us to get our fair share of the pie,” Young said in a phone interview. “The dollar amount of the VA contract is huge. For a small business to get something like this is amazing.”

The Obama administration has prodded agencies to steer more contracts to small businesses after the government missed its targets in that area. The VA has the added responsibility of helping veteran-owned companies.

One of the three small businesses on the technology contract will be owned by a disabled veteran if there’s an acceptable offer, agency spokeswoman Jo Schuda said in an e-mail.

Budget immunity

The Homeland Security Department and the General Services Administration have put small firms in the driver’s seats of similar contracts, but the VA initiative is particularly interesting because the agency’s funding is set to grow in an austere budget environment. It is also immune to the looming threat of automatic U.S. spending cuts.

The VA is using a separate, $12 billion technology contract, awarded in 2011, to help small businesses owned by disabled veterans. So far, most orders under the umbrella contract for technology products and services have gone to such firms.

HP, based in Palo Alto, Calif., won $20 million under that agreement. By comparison, Systems Made Simple, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based business owned by a disabled veteran, got almost $260 million. Dell and IBM don’t have any part of the deal.

The agency had a target of spending 34 percent of eligible direct contract revenue with small businesses in the year ended Sept. 30. It surpassed that goal and hit 35.1 percent, according to preliminary data from the Small Business Administration Web site.

Dozens of companies have expressed interest in the VA technology contract to be awarded by March 31.

Red River Computer, based in Claremont, N.H., has bid on the contract, said Jim Dunn, the company’s vice president of strategic programs.

The small business has part of a Homeland Security contract, valued at as much as $3 billion, that also reserved all its prime-contractor slots for small firms. Dell and Cisco Systems are partners on that agreement, he said.

Dozens interested

HP and IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., appear on a federal Web site’s list of vendors that have expressed interest in the VA project.

Ericka Floyd, a spokeswoman for HP, and Vineeta Durani, a spokeswoman for IBM, declined to comment on whether their companies were pursuing the work.

Almost 100 companies — including Lenovo Group, Oracle, Dell and Cisco — registered to attend a 2011 VA event for vendors seeking more information on the project.

“Dell is always looking for ways to help key government customers better accomplish their mission through more effective and efficient IT solutions and services,’’ Scott Radcliffe, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail. He didn’t comment on whether Dell, based in Round Rock, Tex., was seeking a role in the project.

The government work is important to large computer makers such as HP and Dell in part because it provides a relatively stable source of income, Abhey Lamba, an analyst with Mizuho Securities USA in New York, said in a phone interview.

“Every contract matters, especially one this sizable,” Lamba said.

—Bloomberg Government