Microsoft enterprise search strategy leads to acquisition bid

Microsoft's $1.2 billion acquisition bid for Fast Search reveals Microsoft's enterprise search strategy. CIOs will feel a jolt or two.

Microsoft Corp.'s acquisition bid this week for Norwegian data search company Fast Search & Transfer ASA is being hailed as a seismic event in enterprise search strategy. Experts are using terms like shake-up, crossroads and transformative to describe the $1.2 billion deal.

What are the aftershocks for CIOs?

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"It means two things to a CIO: I'm not paying enough attention to my search strategy. Microsoft thinks search is worth a billion dollars and I'm spending pocket change," Gartner Inc. analyst Whit Andrews said.

The second thing? Expect Microsoft and competing vendors to tell you why you should pick them, added Andrews, who covers enterprise search at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.

The flashy deal, generally applauded as an all-around win for the companies and customers, is also sure to have caught the attention of your CEO, said analyst Ken Poore at Forrester Research Inc. CIOs can count on the inevitable corner-office queries about their companies' enterprise search strategies -- and should be prepared to defend them, said Poore, who has blogged about Microsoft's deal with other Forrester analysts. This is especially important for customers of companies like Autonomy Corp., Endeca Technologies Inc. and Vivisimo Inc., the pure-play vendors whose sophisticated search platforms sort through the massive structured and unstructured data companies deal with today. The contextual queries provided by these tools go well beyond the "white box" search and list of results defined by Google.

"CXOs, when they see this in The Wall Street Journal, don't know who Autonomy is or Endeca or who Fast was until they read about it Tuesday," Poore said. "CIOs and CTOs and chief search officers have to make sure they have a well-defined strategy: This is what we have, this is why it is good, and if we need to we can re-evaluate it."

The Microsoft acquisition bid, which was unanimously supported by Fast's board of directors and is expected to be completed in the second quarter, could drive down costs of enterprise search, Poore said, giving CIOs another reason to take a hard look at their current enterprise search strategies.

For IT professionals just starting to evaluate products, it will be harder to justify the purchase of an independent search company when the company is already using Microsoft. For current customers of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) and Fast, the deal will eventually mean a much simplified vendor relationship, a different professional services model and a strengthened research and development team, Poore said.

All shook up

Whether or not your search strategy changes in the wake of the Microsoft/Fast deal, industry experts agree that the software giant has managed to change its profile in enterprise search and shake up the market in a single bound.

"This is Microsoft undergoing genetic therapy in the search business -- a massive transfusion of extremely advanced thinking about search technologies suddenly delivered directly to the pericardium," Gartner's Andrews said.

At least until recently, Microsoft's track record in the search business has not been an unqualified success. MSN never quashed whatever it was intended to quash, like Lycos, AOL or Google, Andrews said. Nor has Microsoft -- its recent search offerings and claims notwithstanding -- produced a strategic enterprise-class search engine.

MOSS 2007 has been criticized as lightweight, superficial and not as scalable as its high-end competitors. Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express and its licensed version, Microsoft Search Server 2008, are improvements but still lack "the kind of breadth and gravitas" of technologies like Fast or Endeca, Autonomy or Vivisimo, Andrews said. "They are good starter solutions, with the potential to become more strategic solutions, but their target market has been people who act small."

This is Microsoft undergoing genetic therapy in the search business -- a massive transfusion of extremely advanced thinking about search technologies suddenly delivered directly to the pericardium.
Whit Andrews
analystGartner Inc.
With this acquisition, Microsoft not only validates its enterprise search capability, but it also leapfrogs major infrastructure players IBM and Oracle Corp., whose small acquisitions and "nascent search initiatives" fall short of the rich capabilities of the veteran pure plays and which no doubt will be scouting for their own acquisitions following the Microsoft bid.

But perhaps the biggest impact of the deal, said analyst and vendors, is the imprimatur it puts on the enterprise search market.

Gartner's Andrews said the deal shows that an infrastructure giant like Microsoft believes enterprise search "represents a crossroads in business operations, as significant as the crossroads in network infrastructure where Cisco merged as a dominant vendor."

Forrester's Poore and colleague Leslie Owens hailed the deal as a "transformative event of the enterprise search industry" in a blog entry yesterday.

Even small search competitors claim to be excited. Robert Tennant, CEO of San Francisco-based Recommind Inc., a software search company specializing in compliance and e-discovery applications, said the deal "corroborates the importance of the enterprise search market." He added that it will ultimately help underscore the difference between general search and the vastly more sophisticated search capabilities pioneered by the Recomminds of the business.

Finally, the hoopla over the deal -- and its potential wide-reaching effect -- is due in no small part to Microsoft's unusual depth across the world.

"Had it been a smaller firm making the acquisition, it would have been less credible," Andrews said. The acquisition opens up the opportunity to expand in Scandinavia, as Microsoft touted in its announcement. But the geography could also help Microsoft hang on to the core engineering team it needs to capitalize on the deal, "even better than it could making an acquisition in Silicon Valley," where the talent has more opportunity to jump ship.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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