New Front in Microsoft’s War With Google

Microsoft’s play on Jan. 8 to buy Fast Search & Transfer ASA for $1.2 billion is an attempt to grab a leadership position in the multi-billion-dollar market for enterprise search, as much as it is a gauntlet thrown at the feet of Google, IBM and others.

Lamenting the state of the enterprise search market today, Microsoft Business Division President Jeff Raikes said customers can choose between high-end specialized search technologies, from vendors such as Autonomy or Fast, or mainstream infrastructure products such as Google’s Search Appliance or IBM’s OmniFind software.

This approach leaves gaps in enterprise search portfolios, forcing customers to pick technologies from different vendors.

“Customers don’t want their enterprise search solution to be a fragmented solution across the organization,” Raikes said in a conference call with analysts and reporters Jan. 8.

Microsoft chose Norway’s Fast to add a high-end search platform that will bolster its own search offerings, ideally to make SharePoint a more attractive productivity suite.

By combining the Fast Enterprise Search Platform with its existing and lower-end Search Server 2008 Express, Microsoft Search Server 2008 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, Raikes said Microsoft will have the most complete solution for universal data access for the corporate sector.

Raikes said Fast’ scope is far broader than SharePoint and Microsoft’s ancillary search products, searching billions of documents instead of millions. Fast’s technology let users further refine search based on different data elements; a user who goes to Best Buy Web site to search on plasma TVs can winnow down search based on screen size or resolution count.

IDC analyst Susan Feldman told eWEEK Jan. 8 that Fast has an index architecture comprised of a huge matrix of columns from databases, making it a font of not only content but data. Fast will provide businesses the ability to index and harvest the data they created by using Microsoft’s Office, SharePoint, Outlook and SQL Server applications.

Feldman also said Fast’s heritage as a Web search provider—the company sold its Web search business to Overture for $70 million in 2003—makes its enterprise search a platform capable of immense scalability.

In response, Microsoft plans to deploy Fast’s technologies both as traditional on-premise and software-plus-services offerings, but Raikes declined to detail how that might work.

Competitively, the deal puts Microsoft on a collision course with Google, widely considered the enterprise search market leader, as well as IBM, Autonomy and other, smaller vendors.

Gilbane Group analyst Lynda Moulton wrote in a blog post Jan. 8 that Microsoft had to make a bold play in an industry where Google has been the biggest player while reaching deeper into the enterprise, tickling at Microsoft’s decades-old hold on content creation and capture.

An acquisition of Fast, whose technology is certainly the most widely deployed at the high-end, opens up a direct challenge to Google,” Moulton wrote.

Some analysts believe a Microsoft-Fast marriage will trigger more consolidation in the market.

“It is certain to make other large vendors look at the acquisition of high-end solution providers rather than develop their own,” Ovum Research analyst Mike Davis wrote in a research note. “Of course, the big prize will be Autonomy, which is still endeavoring to demonstrate the strength of its independence.”

Assuming Google and IBM won’t want to buy Autonomy, data management providers such as Oracle and EMC could snap up the UK-based enterprise search giant to meet the rising tide of unstructured information head on.

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