Lemur Flax: Open Source Search Pressure Rises

March 8, 2008

LastMinute.com founders Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox have a new venture, MyDeco.com. What’s interesting about the furniture and home design site is that its search engine, based on the information available to me, is Lemur Consulting’s Flax. (Yanks will have to be careful when searching for information, because there are Mac utilities, restaurants, and clothing sites with “flax” domain names.)

Let’s get the links out of the way first:

  • The MyDeco beta site is at MyDeco.com
  • The link to Lemur’s free version of Flax is tucked away on the company’s Web site here and is accessible from Google Code as well
  • The link to the start page for Flax information is at Flax.co.uk
  • Information about Lemur Consulting Ltd. is at LemurConsulting.com

MyDeco.com Deployment

The screen shot below shows that the Flax system can deliver a feature-rich experience when properly set up, configured, and tuned. Keep in mind that Lemur does charge a fee for its services and its version of the Flax system.


You can replicate this search for corner sofa by entering the query in the MyDeco.com search box. Note these features, please:

  • Tabs that allow one click access to the corner sofas in the result list in a “room” setting and articles about corner sofas
  • A price range slider to minimize the need for a user to type range values
  • A catalog-style results list
  • Across the top of the interface is a dark gray bar with one-click access to buying a “look”, content, social / community functions, and an FAQ

What’s interesting is that the Flax system for a single user’s desktop is available without charge from Lemur. Open source repositories have the code tool. Why? The search system is free, although some restrictions apply. I’m not going to summarize the details which are clearly stated on the Lemur Web site, but you can now with a bit of fiddling replicate the type of features available from commercial systems at a fraction of the price. The MyDeco.com implementation, which is in beta, could fool a user into assuming that the site’s search system was provided by Dieselpoint, Endeca, or Fast Search & Transfer. Unless my research is dead wrong, Flax sure looks like one of these industrial-strength solutions that can cost upwards of six figures to get up and running.

What’s Flax Do?

Flax can build searchable indexes of millions of documents such as Microsoft Office files, HTML, and Adobe PDFs. The default interface can be easily customized. Flax runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. When properly resourced, the system is responsive and displays results quickly in my tests.

A Little about the Plumbing

Flax is based on the Xapian, an open source platform. Lemur’s engineers have added software to handle more file types, including email and structured information in database management systems. Information about Xapian is available here.

Lemur’s Value Adds

Lemur provides its proprietary enhancements; namely, the adapters to handle file types, a method to provide support for large indexes, and middleware to make it easy to integrate Lemur Flax into enterprise applications. The company also provides various default interfaces to allow quick customization for specific client needs.

Lemur provides professional services to support Flax. The firm’s engineers will customize, install, and configure Flax to meet your specific requirements. The company also offers an on-going maintenance service and will handle software maintenance and ad hoc technical support as well.

To get a custom price quotation, you can contact Lemur, based in Cambridge, England, by sending an email to info at lemurconsulting.com.


You may want to try out Flax’s basic version. It can be installed on a single desktop PC. You can index a large number of files quickly. Note that Adobe PDF files consume more CPU cycles. Our test corpus processed in less than five minutes, which is comparable to the throughput of other desktop systems such as IBM Yahoo OmniFind, for example. OmniFind is based the Lucene open source code. Unlike other “free” search products, Flax Basic does not put a limit on how many documents you can index. An FAQ is available, and the documentation for a free product is quite good.

Three other observations are warranted in my opinion:

  1. The use of open source code “wrapped” with proprietary middleware and equipped with customized widgets is increasing. I’ve written about Tesuji, a Hungarian vendor, offering a very good search system built on Lucene. These systems are good and can be used with confidence. It doesn’t take a month of research to figure out that open source search doesn’t pose much of a risk. If the price is right for you, you can save on license fees and deploy a very good search system.
  2. The idea of providing professional services as the core product is gaining momentum. When Verity reported that it was generating more than half its revenue from professional services shortly before it was acquired by Autonomy, the writing on the wall was clear. Trying to build a search company on license fees alone is not a revenue model with stamina. Search is not just a commodity; it’s a give-away or at least much less expensive than the products from high-flying, high-profile companies.
  3. The functionality of Flax, Tesuji, and other open source search plumbing is very good. In fact, the features of Flax are comparable to the six-figure products on offer in the 2004 – 2005 time period. Furthermore, these open source systems are improving rapidly.

What does this mean for commercial vendors of search? Two things.

First, the open source products will exert price pressure on more traditional vendors. IBM, Microsoft – Fast, and Oracle (where there’s been some turnover in the enterprise search unit) may find that their search solutions will have to be given away free or bundled with other enterprise software. Who will be willing to pay a premium for search solutions known to be complex, expensive to maintain, or, in the case of IBM, based on open source code.

Second, with each Flax or Tesuji, procurement teams and systems professionals have an increased opportunity to learn about the benefits of open source software. Most commercial organizations are conservative turtles. But financial pressure and cost overruns from better – known search vendors may combine to let Lemur Consulting and Tesuji, to cite two open source repackagers, to get their moist noses under into the enterprise tent.

Traditional enterprise search vendors — what I call “behind the firewall search” — face a significant incursion of open source into their territory. Arrogant dismissals of open source solutions won’t work the way they used to in the good old days. In fact, those good old days are gone. Can proprietary enterprise search solutions be today’s buggy whips?

Stephen Arnold, March 8, 2008


2 Responses to “Lemur Flax: Open Source Search Pressure Rises”

  1. Charlie Hull on March 10th, 2008 10:44 am

    Hi Stephen, thanks for the great writeup. We’re very proud of Flax and the Mydeco implementation.

    A quick clarification though: we don’t charge anything for our ‘version of the Flax system’, nor do we provide any proprietary enhancements: all of Flax is licensed under the GPL and is freely downloadable as open source software. We charge only for our services.

    If we are asked by a client to develop extensions to Flax, we encourage the client to let us contribute the changes back to the project, so that future users may benefit – but of course, unless the client is distributing the binary code for their solution, they don’t *have* to distribute the source code, so they may choose to keep their custom code in-house to preserve competitive advantage.


    Charlie Hull
    Managing Director, Lemur Consulting Ltd.

  2. Stephen E. Arnold on March 11th, 2008 2:59 pm

    Thanks for the clarification. If I get additional postings about the pricing, I will update the main entry. Keep me informed of Lemur and Flax developments. I appreciate your writing to clarify my understanding. I will be in London in October 2008. I’m willing to sit through a dog and pony show then.

    Stephen Arnold, March 11, 2008 4 pm Eastern

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