Microsoft preps high-end search for the masses

Microsoft preps high-end search for the masses

By Mike Davis and Madan Sheina, analysts at Ovum

February 12, 2009: At its FASTforward’09 conference in Las Vegas this week Microsoft’s newly acquired FAST subsidiary laid out a two-pronged development strategy for its enterprise search assets – one aimed at Internet businesses and the other at business productivity search.

The roadmap attempts to combine the strengths of Microsoft and FAST technologies with a strategy that ensures that customers from either side are not left out in the cold. The most interesting move is pairing the sophistication of FAST’s enterprise search platform (ESP) to the simplicity and attractive price point of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).

The goal, of course, is true to Microsoft type – to bring high-end search to the mainstream.Microsoft is looking to push ESP’s high-end capabilities onto knowledge worker desktops and to power e-business websites

This isn’t so much a new product development roadmap as it is a pairing of the sophistication of FAST’s high-end ESP and the simplicity and compelling price-points of select Microsoft server platforms. There are “new” server-based offerings that integrate ESP with MOSS 2007 and e-business environments for better search-driven performance. FAST insists that it isn’t deploying a lightweight version of ESP into these environments. These are full-blown versions of the product that will provide deeper and more complex search queries than ever before.

However, customers will have to be patient to get their hands on these new ESP-enabled offerings. The beta and release for FAST Search for MOSS will be synchronised to Office 14. For itchy and qualified MOSS customers that can’t wait, there is an early promotional offer to access select ESP capabilities with a licensing migration path to the fully integrated FAST Search for MOSS product.

Meanwhile FAST Search for Internet Business, which tunes ESP for online business scenarios through a range of front- and back-end enhancements around content integration, analytics and interaction management, is expected to come out of beta in the second half of 2009. Pricing will be based on factors like the number of items to be searched and the volume of search capacity required.

SharePoint gives FAST ESP a broader opportunity to shine. The most interesting part of this roadmap is the integration of high-end search into MOSS. Billed rather generically as infrastructure for enabling so-called “business productivity”, MOSS has over the years become a magnet for a number of tools and functionality. Microsoft seems content to throw everything at it – collaboration, content management, portal, scorecarding and dashboarding, and search. However, many of these capabilities have been dismissed as being too lightweight. The search capability in particular hit a low ceiling in terms of the documents it could handle and customers were forced to license third-party search capabilities.

Microsoft makes no bones about its proletarian vision of democratising IT access. First it was “business intelligence for the masses”. Now Microsoft seems intent on bringing the power of high-end search to everyone. The difference is that ESP was an expensive high-end platform. To enable broad deployment and usage of ESP at an affordable cost to all pockets, Microsoft is tying it to MOSS’s user-based Client Access Licensing (CAL) scheme – i.e. customers that already have MOSS will only have to fork out for server licences that search will be deployed on – to enable broad deployment and usage.

Of course, MOSS customers that already hold an Enterprise CAL will be laughing, since they will effectively own the product when it becomes available as part of Office 14. These customers won’t have to buy additional client licences for ESP. All they have to do is purchase the additional server licences for the new product. Microsoft cleverly spins this as giving “credit” to a customer for their MOSS investment.

Microsoft’s creative licensing might have the potential to change the price performance ratio of enterprise search – by as much as 50% assuming buyers are already MOSS customers. It will be interesting to see how rivals like Autonomy react – perhaps by offering a discounted version of its IDOL engine with its recently acquired Interwoven content management platform.

However, the old adage “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink” holds true. It’s unclear how many MOSS customers will flip the ESP switch that will be made readily available to them? If a lot of them do then Microsoft has just claim to transforming enterprise search from a cottage industry into the business mainstream.

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