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Coveo Solutions Inc.

An Interview with Laurent Simoneau

Laurent Simoneau of Coveo Solutions Inc.

I caught up with the high-energy Mr. Simoneau is a small French café in "old" Montréal in March 2008. Bursting with energy and intensity, Mr. Simoneau answered my questions while sipping his US$6 dollar coffee and nibbling on a just-from-the-oven croissant. was an early adopter of Copernic, a product that made Web research a breeze. And my tests of  Coveo, his enterprise search solution, eliminates most of the headaches associated with SharePoint's native search function. In the last year, the company has added support for Linux and enhanced Coveo's content processing functionality.

When I tested Coveo's new release, I found that the configuration logic for indexing both unstructured and structured data made a sometimes difficult task, quick, clear, and easy to perform. Coveo sports a slick interface and a well-conceived administrative control panel may well bring tears of joy to the eyes of a customer who has had to fiddle with ASCII configuration files used by some vendors. The text of my conversation with Mr. Simoneau follows.

Why is Montréal so French?

Just good sense, I think. You must admit that you don't get croissants like this in Kentucky? Am I right?

Why has Québec become a focal point for technology? There's Coveo, the CGI consulting group, and I think there used to be a company called Delphes too? Is there a Canadian or provincial program for high-tech companies like yours?

You will find hundreds of technology companies in the province of Québec around a couple of sectors: telecom - optics, software, gaming plus hardware Software for the aeronautics industry. Not far from here, in Montréal we have Bombardier and CAE plus many other technology companies.

We have a strong high-tech ecosystem in this province. Other examples are Taleo, which has 300 R&D people in tiny Québec City. E&A, Ubisoft, and Activision in the gaming industry employ thousands of people in Montréal and Québec. Matrox also designs and manufactures high-end graphic cards and has a large facility in the Montréal area.

The Canadian and provincial governments are still interested in high technology. There are some subsidies available; there are government contracts; and there are some very good ways to meet people in high tech all across Canada. But the financial institutions understand the importance of technology too. If you have a good idea, there are skilled people and influential people willing to provide guidance -- and sometimes money as well. Did you see the news about Coveo?

Your firm received an infusion of $2.5 million, earlier this month, right?

Yes. The news came out on March 6, 2008.

Is this an example of the business ecosystem you mentioned?

Yes. Coveo and many other firms benefit from this tech ecosystem. Of course, some seek support from the federal and provincial governments. It's not easy skating though. Each company has to meet specific criteria related to innovation and advancement of sciences.

We have a competititive cost of living, significant R&D subsidies, an East coast time zone, and good technical universities. Over all, we have the ingredients for an active technology sector.

What was the trigger in your career that made search and retrieval a focal point? It's a contentious market with many competitors, isn't it?

The Coveo R&D endeavor started at Copernic Technologies during the start of 2000. Copernic was a very popular desktop federated-search engine targeted at the consumer market. I was the CTO at the time and fully understood the weaknesses of federated search in terms of user adoption because of obvious speed and quality limitations.

We decided to explore the opportunity to acquire, partner or build our own indexing engine that could serve, we hoped, many of our data sources feeding Copernic. It became obvious very quickly that while it was easy to explain the value of a search box (my mother understands it), providing advanced search is one of the hardest technical challenge possible. To help us with this challenge, we decided to add more resources dedicated to building our own technology.

From a business perspective, the Dot Com collapse helped us to start looking at business pains instead of consumer needs. We thought the corporate sector would have the same needs but expressed in a different way.

It also became clear that major differences in terms of design would have to be addressed: highly configurable meta-field structure and parametric search, just-in-time refreshing, early-binding security, connectivity were all taking into account from the start.

At that time, Autonomy, Convera, Fast Search & Transfer, and Verity --  these were the market leaders. These companies played the game with a very high level of competence; however, none of them could claim to have an agile model of distribution and deployment. That is how we would build our software -- platform-class performances coupled with the simplicity of a consumer-like, downloadable product. Because there wasn't much space in the market then, we had to really deliver on these key points.

In 2004, we decided the product was ready to go to market. Since there was no way to do it effectively under a consumer brand like Copernic, we decided to spin-off the intellectual property of Copernic and its technological assets into a new company called Coveo, with the exclusive focus to design, build and sell enterprise search software. Our customers keep telling us that we have made a very complicated process much more palatable.

You were among the first companies to provide an alternative to Microsoft's own search system in SharePoint. How did you arrive at that market insight?

In 2003-2004, SharePoint had clearly limited search functionality. It was also clear, from Microsoft’s design choices that Coveo had a different view the definition of "good search".

Sometimes market pain is so obvious that one thinks hundreds of companies are working to solve it. With Microsoft SharePoint, this was not the case. We decided to invest in our search based on the following assumptions:

First, the big players, since they were far away from the Microsoft culture, would have a hard time dealing with the level of integration required for SharePoint.

Second, Microsoft would work to solve SharePoint search problems; however, they would not spend enough time building connectivity at the search level. Their main approach would be to focus on SharePoint as a repository. For exaple, we pondered whether Microsoft would support searching inside from SharfePoint. Having decided that Microsoft would not support this function, we built support into our system.

We were fortunate to have customers who bought a very early proof-of-concept version of our SharePoint Search and provided solid feedback on the pain it solved. Meanwhile, Microsoft was claiming that SharePoint was the fastest growing product in its history. Microsoft marketing made SharePoint a high profile product. We thought it would be a good platform to connect with. We knew in 2004 that if we could make SharePoint the beach to enter the enterprise, we could expand our products and services.

There are more than 65 million users of SharePoint, maybe 80 million. What were the technical hurdles you have jumped to give your SharePoint customers a more intuitive, less cumbersome way to locate information in a Microsoft environment?

Well, the big technical hurdle is understanding how Microsoft engineers its software. The company has some specific characteristics. We invested significant time and energy in figuring out how SharePoint worked "under the hood."

With SharePoint growth being really fast and generally very organic, the underlying structure is not always optimal. Our technical knowledge of Microsoft is a big part of our success. We know where the pitfalls are and also how to avoid falling into them.

There's an interface side of the Coveo approach to SharePoint too. Helping users better navigate through SharePoint has been and remains to be an important goal for Coveo. We focus on relevant information, but also provide context for users to identify which results are worth exploring further.

Would you give me a couple of examples?

Sure. We provide a smart document address so a user can access a document. We also include specific item types so a user knows what type of information object she will get back. We also strive to understand what information people store in SharePoint. Documents are one thing, but there is a lot of structured information as well that has to be leveraged.

I think people call this "assisted navigation" or "search via facets" -- we call it “Faceted Search”. We provide this type of search function for SharePoint metadata, as well as the ability to easily extend the list of indexed and searchable fields. A Coveo user is not in hand cuffs when it comes to metadata.

In our experience, we show people what Coveo can do with its ability to search across site collections and query external content. People with some SharePoint experience make Coveo the SharePoint interface, so usage of the SharePoint system itself increases. We were one of the first companies to learn this about the power of effective search technology and its power as an enabler.

Key word indexing is not something more employees like to do or do very well. Is that your experience?

Key word searching has its place. But the users of online systems have more experience with search than users did even a year ago. Therefore, it is important to offer a user different ways to access information.

What's Coveo done to added additional metadata to its content processing subsystem?

Coveo Enterprise Search sits on a classic keyword-search architecture with inverted indexing. What makes Coveo different is the addition of these smart features to refine the whole search experience:

The idea of providing a point-and-click interface or assisted navigation on almost any metadata allows a multi-step query experience.

Concept extraction and automatic summarization technologies significantly increase the accuracy of the system. Our approach is mainly based on probabilistic approaches.  We also make use of some linguistic and semantic technology. We have learned to focus on what makes the most sense for the user, avoiding the mistake of believing there is only one way to solve a problem in information retrieval.

We have had to create some new solutions. I cannot say too much, but we have proprietary language detection and multilingual stemming algorithms that enrich the indexing of large corporate databases. We have also patented speech recognition technologies that enable businesses to perform high quality indexing of multimedia content like podcasts or videos.

Users of behind-the-firewall search systems tell me, "I want Intranet search to work like Google." What does Coveo provide to its licensees to make search easier for those users who just want "good enough" information?

While we make it easy for our customers to quickly deploy a Google-style search box for searching their enterprise data, users of Coveo Enterprise Search are able to retrieve the right results in the right context from their queries because of a series of advanced functionalities that are triggered automatically.

What do you mean?

Assume you put a query into Coveo. You just want information, and you haven't read our Help files or documentation. We have implemented automatic functions to allow you to get useful information because the system takes some actions for you. This is automatic. For example, Coveo provides:

  • Proactive query expansion features (like a contextual “did you mean”)
  • Query ranking expressions linked to a specific UI (would dynamically infer relevance according to the user and the context)
  • Document-level security to filter results in an integrated fashion.

licensee can customize the user interface through a graphical Interface Editor that doesn’t require explicit coding. This makes it possible to create specialized views to the same data.

What enterprise systems do you support? For example, Documentum, JDEdwards, or similar information centric applications with relatively weak search functions?

We provide out-of-the box connectors to the following enterprise systems and information repositories:

  • Databases – SQL Server, Oracle, ODBC
  • Documentum
  • File Servers (Windows, UNIX, LINUX)
  • Lotus Notes
  • Microsoft Exchange Server (Mailboxes, Public Folders)
  • Microsoft SharePoint 2003/2007
  • Novell Netware
  • SiteCore CMS
  • Symantec Enterprise Vault (KVS)
  • Web (HTTP, HTTPS, FTP)

Coveo Enterprise Search includes a connector framework allowing the secure integration of other enterprise systems that we don't offer a filter in the basic system. Therefore, it is pretty easy to support such applications and systems as MoinMoin, AskMe, and other content management systems that have been delivered for specific customers via this connector framework.

We also leverage the Google OneBox API for federated search available across a broad range of enterprise systems.

Can you give me an example of a Coveo customer who has used the Coveo API to integrate Coveo into a third party application?

A great example of a company that has integrated our best-of-breed search platform within a third party application is Nexsan, a leading vendor of secure storage solutions. They provide archiving appliances that rely on Coveo Enterprise Search to power the search-and-discovery function in their storage systems.

I think the Coveo interface is quite intuitive. Compared to some other aspects of the Coveo system, how much time and effort do you put into the interface side of the system?

The user interface and general ergonomics is in Coveo’s DNA. In other words, it is natural behaviour for most of our R&D folks to look at the front-end as their indirect responsibility.

Therefore, user experience as a whole is a top priority for the whole team. UI is certainly part of that, but relevancy, speed and other features directly impacting the front-end are included..

What's coming for Coveo in 2008?

We have just announced that Louis Têtu has joined the company’s management team as executive chairman. Louis is the founder and ex-CEO of Taleo (Nasdaq: TLEO), an SaaS vendor that has grown from zero to more than $125 million in seven years under his leadership. Louis has also invested $2 million in a strategic round of funding into the company. This is the investment news you asked me about.

One hint?

Non, non! But, this I promise you. I will send you a link to these new features as soon as these are ready to roll out. Maybe you can write about them in your Beyond Search blog? Okay?

ArnoldIT Comment

Coveo provides snap-in capabilities for SharePoint in its Coveo Enterprise Search solution. The company's product can be used a behind-the-firewall search system even if you don't have SharePoint or run Windows' server software. In my tests of the system, Coveo has done a very good job of making search system administration fast, clear, and simple. Of particular significance is the Coveo method of accessing structured information. No coding is required, and you can easily handle different database tables even if your organization uses multiple database systems. Coveo warrants a close look and consideration. More information about the company is here.

Stephen E. Arnold, March 11, 2008

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