MSFT – FAST: Will It Make a Difference?

January 16, 2008

On January 15, I received a telephone call from one of the Seybold Group’s analysts. Little did I know that at the same time the call was taking place, Google’s Rodrigo Vaca, a Googler working in the Enterprise Division, posted “Make a Fast Switch to Google.”

The question posed to me by Seybold’s representative was: “Will Microsoft’s buying Fast Search & Transfer?” My answer, and I am summarizing, “No, certainly not in the short-term. In fact looking 12 to 18 months out, I don’t think the behind-the-firewall market will be significantly affected by this $1.2 billion buy out.”

After I made the statement, there was a longish pause as the caller thought about what I asserted. The follow up question was, “Why do you say that?” There are three reasons, and I want to highlight them because most of the coverage of the impending deal has been interesting but uninformed. Let me offer my analysis:

  1. The technology for behind-the-firewall search is stable. Most of the vendors offer systems that work reasonably well when properly configured, resourced, and maintained. In fact, if I were to demonstrate three different systems to you, gentle reader, you would be hard pressed to tell me which system was demonstrated and you would not be able to point out the strengths and weaknesses of properly deployed systems. Let me be clear. Very few vendors offer a search-and-retrieval solution significantly different from its competitors. Procurements get slowed because those on the procurement team have a difficult time differentiating among the sales pitches, the systems, and the deals offered by vendors. I’ve been doing search-related work for 35 years, and I get confused when I hear the latest briefing from a vendor.
  2. An organization with five or more enterprise search systems usually grandfathers an older system. Every system has its supporters, and it is a hassle to rip and replace an existing system, convert that system’s habitual users. Behind-the-firewall search, therefore, is often additive. An organization leaves well enough alone and uses its resources to deploy the new system. Ergo: large organizations have multiple search and retrieval systems. No wonder employees are dissatisfied with behind-the-firewall search. A person looking for information must search local machines, the content management system, the enterprise accounting system, and whatever search systems are running in departments, acquired companies, and in the information technology department. Think gradualism and accretion, not radical change in search and retrieval.
  3. The technical professionals at an organization have an investment of time in their incumbent systems. An Oracle data base administrator wants to work with Oracle products. The learning curve is reduced and the library of expertise in the DBA’s head is useful in troubleshooting Oracle-centric software and systems. The same holds true with SharePoint-certified engineers. An IT professional who has a stable Fast Search installation, a working DB2 data warehouse, an Autonomy search stub in a BEA Systems’ application server, a Google Search Appliance in marketing, and a Stratify eDiscovery system in the legal department doesn’t want to rock the boat. Therefore, the company’s own technical team stonewalls change.

I’m not sure how many people in the behind-the-firewall business thank their lucky stars for enterprise inertia. Radical change, particularly in search and retrieval, is an oxymoron. The Seybold interviewer was surprised that I was essentially saying, “Whoever sells the customer first has a leg up. An incumbent has the equivalent of a cereal brand with shelf space in the grocery store.”

Now, let’s shift to Mr. Vaca’s assertion that “confused and concerned customers” may want to license a Google Search Appliance in order to avoid the messiness (implied) with the purchase of Fast Search by Microsoft. The idea is one of those that seems very logical. A big company like Microsoft buys a company with 2,500 corporate customers. Microsoft is, well, Microsoft. Therefore, jump to Google. I don’t know Mr. Vaca, but I have an image of a good looking, earnest, and very smart graduate of a name brand university. (I graduated from a cow college on the prairie, so I am probably revealing my own inferiority with this conjured image of Mr. Vaca.)

The problem is that the local logic of Mr. Vaca is not the real-world logic of an organization with an investment in Fast Search & Transfer technology. Most information technology professionals want to live with something that is stable, good enough, and reasonably well understood. Google seems to have made a similar offer in November 2005 when the Autonomy purchase of Verity became known. Nothing changed in 2005, and nothing will change in 2008 in terms of defectors leaving Fast Search for the welcoming arms of Google.

To conclude: the market for behind-the-firewall search is not much different from the market for other enterprise software at this time. However, two things make the behind-the-firewall sector volatile. First, because of the similar performance of the systems now on offer, customers may well be willing to embrace a solution that is larger than information retrieval. A solution for information access and data management may be sufficiently different to allow an innovator to attack from above; that is, offer a meta-solution that today’s vendors can’t see coming and can’t duplicate. Google, for example, is capable of such a meta-attack. IBM is another firm able to leap frog a market.

Second, the pain of getting a behind-the-firewall search up and stable is significant. Remember: there is human effort, money, infrastructure, users, and the mind numbing costs of content transformation operating to prevent sudden changes of direction in the type of organization with which I am familiar.

Bottom line: the Microsoft – Fast deal is making headlines. The deal is fueling increased awareness of search, public relations, and investor frenzy. For the time being, the deal will not make a significant difference in the present landscape for behind-the-firewall search. Looking forward, the opportunity for an innovator is to break out of the search-and-retrieval circumvallation. Mergers can’t deliver the impact needed to change the market rules.

Stephen E. Arnold, January 16, 2008, 9 am


3 Responses to “MSFT – FAST: Will It Make a Difference?”

  1. MSFT News Aggregator » MSFT - FAST: Will It Make a Difference on January 19th, 2008 2:01 pm

    […] Original post here […]

  2. Fast Cash, Faster Crash : Beyond Search on July 4th, 2008 8:17 am

    […] MSFT – FAST: Will It Make a Difference? : Beyond Search […]

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