Microsoft preps high-end search for the masses

At its FASTforward'09 conference in Las Vegas Microsoft's newly acquired FAST subsidiary laid out a two-pronged strategy for its enterprise search assets - for internet businesses and 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) with the simplicity and attractive price of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).

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

There are "˜new' server-based offerings that integrate ESP with MOSS 2007 and e-business environments for better search-driven performance. FAST insists it isn't deploying a lightweight version of ESP for these environments. These are full-blown versions of the product that will provide deeper and more complex search queries than ever before.

Not so fast

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 impatient, qualified MOSS customers who 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 improvements 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 the opportunity to shine

The most interesting part of this roadmap is the integration of high-end search into MOSS. Billed generically as infrastructure for enabling so-called business productivity, MOSS has become a magnet for 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 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' user-based Client Access Licensing (CAL) scheme.

In other words, customers who 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 who 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‾

The old adage, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," holds true. It's unclear how many MOSS customers will choose to exploit ESP even when it is made readily available to them. If a lot of them do, Microsoft will have claim to transforming enterprise search from a cottage industry into the business mainstream.

Mike Davis, Senior Analyst,  Madan Sheina, Principal Analyst