After years of writing customer proposals, internal memoranda, and various stuffily formal documents, it feels like a luxury to be able to just write what I think about enterprise search.  It’s actually part of my job these days and I’m looking forward to sharing a perspective from 13 years in the industry – the past 6 years with FAST and, most recently, with Microsoft.

As a reminder, it’s been a more than a year since the original offer came down from Microsoft to acquire FAST. To be precise, the bid was announced on January 8th, 2008 and the deal closed on April 25th, 2008. The FAST team now makes up a large part of the new Enterprise Search Group (ESG) within the Microsoft Business Division (MBD) – the division that makes SharePoint, the Office line of products, Exchange, etc… . 

When I get asked about my reaction to the FAST acquisition by Microsoft, I tend to point out that, while those of us in the business have always understood the value of search, nothing says “Ata boy!” like having the largest software company in the world take notice. Maybe we could ask why it took so long, but even if you didn’t happen to work at FAST, you can’t help but feel that Microsoft’s move is validation of our growing corner of the IT industry.

I admit that the answer above, while maybe heartwarming, doesn’t get to the core of what people really want to know. Not surprisingly, folks are more interested in Microsoft’s vision for enterprise search and plans for the FAST people, products, partners, and customers than they are in my emotions.  Now, with a year under the belt at Microsoft, I have a few more insights to offer than just the initial “nice validation” response.

In his keynote presentation at FASTforward’09 in February, Kirk Koenigsbauer addressed three key topics related to Microsoft’s interest in enterprise search (a transcript of Kirk’s keynote can be found here). These were:

·         Commitment (to enterprise search)

·         Vision

·         Product Plans

These topics provide a useful framework for sharing my own observations.

Commitment

There are a number of anecdotal facts that point to Microsoft’s commitment to being a leader in enterprise search. Kirk shared a few of these in his keynote – things like the percentage of Microsoft Research investment going to search (appx 15%), the size of the Enterprise Search Group R&D organization (several hundred engineers and growing),  and of course the investment itself to acquire FAST (US$1.2B). There are other supporting data points, like the announcement of Oslo (FAST’s headquarters) as a key R&D center for business search.

Any one of these facts is a strong indication of Microsoft’s ambitions in this space, but my take is that the evidence of Microsoft’s commitment to search comes from more than these metrics or executive statements. It comes from a growing grass roots interest in search across all of Microsoft.  For example, I often get a question like this from customers and partners:

“Have you guys talked with the folks over in Microsoft’s <product name> team?”

…and then…

Man, you should because FAST technology added to what they’re doing would be powerful combination.”

The usual answer is, yes, we’ve talked to the <product name> team and, yes, there are some very interesting ideas and even some specific activity that we mostly can’t talk about yet. In fact, what’s been most interesting and fun for us former FAST folks is the breadth of technologies that we can now include in our conversations with customers and partners. SharePoint is the “hero SKU”, as we say here, and the combination of FAST search with the capabilities of SharePoint makes for an impressive offering for both intranet and Internet applications that are focused on helping people consume and use information.  It’s not a leap to recognize that Microsoft has something to offer at almost every level of an IT solution “stack” complementing the capabilities of both SharePoint and search – from the operating system to application development tools and even cloud-based services. To put it in perspective, ask yourself how many companies offer both a world class enterprise search platform and a world class relational database.

To be honest, search is such a generally valued concept and the possibilities are so compelling when it’s combined with other Microsoft products and technology that it’s all we can do to stay focused on our main priorities. It’s a good problem.

Vision

At some point prior to the acquisition, the Microsoft enterprise search team came to a vision of search that matched what we had developed at FAST. Specifically, that search is more than just a search box and a list of blue document links, but represents a set of capabilities that are enabling new ways to engage users by creating personalized, conversational experiences that cater to the way people prefer to consume and interact with information. This vision was behind the principle theme for the FASTforward’09 conference this past February – “Engage Your Users”.

Whether the original Microsoft team came to this vision independently or after talking to FAST folks (ego would like to think the latter) is less important than the fact that it is now a shared vision throughout the Microsoft Enterprise Search Group and is shaping how we are investing in product development. It’s also a vision that is permeating into other areas within Microsoft. For example, I recently had a chance to apply this way of thinking about search to some other very interesting Microsoft technology, Microsoft Surface, but that’s a topic for another post.

Product Plans

At FASTforward’09 we announced our plans to target enterprise search in two areas: 

·         Business productivity – applications inside the firewall where, in particular, SharePoint provides the framework for content management and collaboration.

·         Internet business – “outside the firewall” applications for attracting, retaining, and otherwise monetizing customers.

The intentions are to have a common search platform supporting both of these general markets and to include application specific capabilities and templates that are unique to each. FAST had already started down this path. For example, FAST AdMomentum is an ad platform that interoperates with search and is relevant to monetization strategies in Internet Businesses, but not so obvious of a fit for inside the firewall apps.

This relatively straightforward strategy and message was very important to get out to the FAST customers base, especially given that Internet Businesses have made up well more than half of FAST’s business to date. Also, most industry pundits will tell you that the requirements for search inside the corporate firewall are simply different than search in consumer facing applications. Even so, what’s so promising to me about this strategy is that there are opportunities to “bleed” capabilities between these two application spaces. We saw this “consumerization” of search features happen more than once at FAST. Features that we initially designed for consumer search found their way into intranet search deployments (one simple example is the “best bets” concept like the one found in SharePoint). The opposite has also happened. Now, consider the capabilities in SharePoint, which is already powering many consumer facing Web sites, and you can see where this can lead.

There you have it, my first post for the Microsoft Enterprise Search Blog. Look for more posts from me in this general category of enterprise search vision and strategy. I welcome all comments on this and future entries.

Next up – Search plus Natural User Interfaces.

Nate