Not So Fast, Folks

July 6, 2008

My news reader alerted me to an essay “How Fast Is Attivio?” The author is Adrian Bloem, a contributing analyst to and its Enterprise Search Report. I try to keep track of ESR and its new shepherds.

Some readers may know I suffered a “heart event” and had to step away from Enterprise Search Report in February 2007. This was a tough decision because ESR was in a way my “baby.” I wrote the first three editions (2004 to 2006).

If there was a mistake in the math of the cost analysis, I made it. I was responsible.

But when I quit, I was no longer responsible. When someone asks me why the number of profiles has been reduced, what do I know? When I stepped away from ESR, I gave up any control over what includes or excludes from the ESR fourth edition.

Sure, I still get a pittance in royalties, but if there is a mistake, I sure as heck am not responsible because I quit, allowing others to take control. I tell people, “Take it up with, not me.” I think you follow my logic here.

How does this apply to Attivio, a start up?

Attivio: Moving Beyond Search

Some history: My interest in Attivio arose from the research I did for my April 2008 monograph Beyond Search: What to Do When Your Enterprise Search System Doesn’t Work. When I was recovering from my little health problem, I did some hard thinking about the sameness of the enterprise search vendors, the many problems I had documented, and survey data that said, “60 percent of the users of enterprise search were dissatisfied with their enterprise search system.” 60 percent! That is a big number, now backed up by other survey findings. But in 2007 few knew what I knew about the problems with traditional enterprise search systems.

The data said to me, “Key word and legacy systems are not what users looking for information needed.”

My study Beyond Search explains these needs and some options, consuming about 300 pages to summarize my data. As I worked on the study, I become more vocal about the user dissatisfaction with enterprise search than some of the other speakers the search conference circuit.

The root of the problem is that the users’ needs and expectations. Most search systems were not changing fast enough or simply could not change.

A colleague alerted me to Attivio. I recall her saying, “Attivio is trying to leapfrog the many problems of traditional enterprise search.”

So, I played telephone tag and finally chased down the Attivio senior management team. I do have a tenacious streak. I used the same technique on executives from Silobreaker (Stockholm, Sweden), MarkLogic (San Carlos, California), Exalead (Paris), and 24 other companies with systems that move “beyond search”. A phase change is taking place, and I wanted first-hand intelligence about what was happening. You can read some of this information in my free Search Wizards Speak series on

When I read Mr. Bloem’s well-crafted essay, published on July 5, 2008, I was struck by the skepticism with regard to Attivio and, by extension, toward other companies with pre-alpha or early-stage systems; for example, Powerset (now part of Microsoft), Radar Networks (Twine), and Tigerlogic (ChunkIt), among dozens of others.

These are works in progress, and each of these companies is working hard to sign up customers and make sales.

My information about Attivio comes from my knowing a couple of the founders, several of whom who worked at Fast Search’s offices near Boston, Massachusetts. Also, I know a bit about Fast Search technology because I had an engineering oversight role for the US Federal government on the Fast Search implementation for the, a US government wide index of citizen-facing content.

In my push forward way, I tracked down Attivio’s founder–Ali Riaz–and interviewed him about his new company and its technical approach.

Mr. Riaz made it clear to me that he and his former colleagues wanted to move “beyond search”; that is, these professionals knew that key word and legacy information retrieval systems were not what users wanted. Mr. Riaz wanted to follow another path, moving to next-generation information access methods. He said:

From all our accumulated experiences in the industry, we realized that search is simply not enough to solve the problems that search has been trying to solve. We realized that today’s search platforms–specifically enterprise search–have become legacy technologies. The market needed a fresh approach, and that’s why we created Attivio.

Please, read the complete interview with Mr. Riaz, which took place in May 2008, here.

In my primary research with Attivio’s management, I learned that Attivio is not a reseller of Fast Search & Transfer’s Enterprise Search Platform. I also learned that Attivio–like IBM, Siderean Software, Tesuji, and other information access companies–was using the open source search system Lucene as a base upon which to build.

The idea was, according to Mr. Riaz:

The Active Intelligence Engine, or AIE. Our AIE enables enterprises to blend their structured data and unstructured content without compromising the richness of either, offering the precision of SQL and the fuzziness of search by “mashing up” search and business intelligence data warehouse technologies.

Attivio, like six or seven of the companies profiled in my Beyond Search study for the Gilbane Group, was designed as a blend of components–some open source, others proprietary, and a lot of their own intellectual property.

Mr. Riaz told me that he was not reselling any vendors’ technology, preferring to “do his own thing”. No big surprise here. Mr. Riaz left Fast Search in mid-2006 and I was talking to him in May 2008.

What Gnaws at Me

The issue that gnaws at me is the implication as I understand Mr. Bloem’s essay that Attivio and its executives are tainted by the problems that have surfaced after they left Fast Search in 2006.

Mr. Riaz and the other Fast Search professionals were employees, reporting to the management team in Norway.

My research indicates that Fast Search’s problems came about because of a dearth of engineers who could install and customize the Fast Search system. I written extensively on this subject in this Web log. The posts are here.

The core of my analysis pivots on gap between the ability of the Fast Search sales team to close major deals, and the difficulty Fast Search encountered hiring enough qualified engineers to implement these enterprise systems.

Without qualified engineers, it is tough to install any enterprise search system. Expertise in search and content processing remains in short supply just as it has been since the ascendance of Google.

In my experience, this type of staffing problem, like a bobsled racing down a run, begins slowly and then gains momentum over time when hiring is slowed due to a shortage of talent.

In the period between 2006 to the present, the engineering  staff issue accelerated like a bobsled racing down a mountain.

Backlash and Tainting: A Case Example

Let me shift gears with a mini-case study.

Here’s what happened to me, and why I am unsettled by the implication that Attivio’s founders have been embroiled in the current problems Fast Search is experiencing.

In 1986, Bell+Howell bought the unit of the Courier-Journal & Louisville Times Co. that produced several successful databases. One database–ABI/INFORM–was exceptional in several ways. It was consistent. It was widely used by the entire Fortune 500 in 1986. It was profitable. It was taught as an exemplary commercial database in information science classes at Catholic University, among others.

From the time Bell+Howell took ownership until I left in 1989, the database was moving in a direction I could not control. Furthermore, the direction that Bell+Howell management wanted to go was counter to what I had tried to do with ABI/INFORM and the other commercial properties from 1981 to 1986 when I had some direct control over the product. My colleagues–Dennis Auld, Loene Trubkin, and the 40 professionals working on the databases–shared a common objective goal from 1981 to June 1986: To create the best commercial database of abstracted business information in the world. We succeeded.

But within a span of 18 months, that excellence was lost, and I resigned without giving notice. I had never had a job I liked more than working on the ABI/INFORM and our other products. My work at the Courier-Journal & Louisville Times Co. was for me the pinnacle of my career. I had to quit. I could not work at a company going in a direction fundamentally opposed to my perception of what should be done.

Now here’s the really painful part.

After I resigned, I had to give a lecture at Rutgers University as part of my ASIS award for contributions to information science. I had been nominated by Bell Labs, in itself a signal honor in 1989. My topic concerned excellence in online information. After my talk, a person asked me, “Why has ABI/INFORM gone down hill so fast? It’s really terrible now.”

I was unable to answer. Even today I recall that I was embarrassed and hurt. I also remember that I dodged the question.

It took years for me to become disassociated from ABI/INFORM and what it had become.

Mr. Bloem’s association of Attivio with Enron and implication that the founders of Attivio were in some way involved in the Fast Search issue in 2008 reminds me of my situation.

If there is evidence that implicates the Attivio executives, I want to see it.

Implying wrong doing is not just risky from a legal point of view, in my opinion, it is damaging because some managers care about products. When a company’s top management wants to go one way and subordinates want to go another, I don’t think it is possible to remain with that company.

Fast Search hired Mr. Riaz; he was not an owner of the company. Owners tell employees what to do, a characteristic that is, in my experience, a characteristic of some European managers’ approach to its US employees.

Furthermore, when people leave a company, the reasons may range from the management frustration I experienced to a desire to “do your own thing” to just have more time with the family. Others may leave because to stay would be insubordinate or uncomfortable.

Net Net

Attivio is a new company, a start up.

I think it deserves an opportunity to develop its products. Those products and the performance of the company have to stand on their own merits.

At this moment, Yahoo executives are moving on. Google executives are cashing out and starting new companies. Microsoft’s own founder is shifting to a different role. Are these people responsible for their former employers in 2010 or 2011? Also, remember that I worked for a unit of Halliburton. Does that mean I will charge $900 for a gallon of fuel in Iraq? That’s easy to assert, but it is not a valid argument yet it can stain my reputation.

Fast Search in 2008 learned the hard way that engineering talent is the key enabler in electronic information. Anyone with hands on experience implementing a large-scale enterprise search system such as the index of the US Federal government or inventing classification technology for a Web application like which we sold to Lycos in 1996 knows this. I have done both by the way. For some additional insight into the challenges of traditional search, read my analysis of Delphes or Entopia for some other examples of the risks posed by search technology.

My thought is, “Stay off the slippery slopes.” Don’t be so “fast” to draw conclusions and cast aspersions without facts and an understanding of how enterprise search systems can go off the track.

Stephen Arnold, July 6, 2008


4 Responses to “Not So Fast, Folks”

  1. Adriaan Bloem on July 7th, 2008 10:22 am

    There’s quite a few debatable remarks in your post, and in your interview with Mr. Riaz. A comment on a blog is probably not the best of places to go into every specific detail, so I’ll try to be brief and just address what is probably the most important criticism of what I wrote.

    I imagine it’s not particularly nice when somebody you described as a “wizard executive at Fast Search & Transfer and other high-tech operations” turns up in a highly critical blog post only a month later. However, this is not something I just made up (or enjoy writing about). I would suggest you read the translation of the article in Dagens Næringsliv, and read it all the way to the end.

    For your convenience, I’ll quote this particularly interesting bit:

    “But you’re saying you’ve had nothing to do with Archtech. This document from the company register in Florida shows you are one of the executives of the company?” Riaz takes a look at the document, thinks for a couple of seconds. Then he put a away his cell phone. “It is two years ago I had anything to do with the company. Now, I believe you should leave me alone. Ask Lervik if there is anything you’re curious about,” says Riaz.
    Dagens Næringsliv has for weeks tried to get answers from Lervik and Fast on questions about the Archtech, Sunwest and Bluebird companies and the Fast managers’ private transactions with Fast. After dozens of requests, DN has still not received a response from Lervik. Late Thursday afternoon, an e-mail from Microsoft executive Jacob Jaffe in Seattle arrived. “Please regard the attached files as source for answers to your questions,” Jaffe writes. Attached was Fast’s fresh and adjusted annual reports for 2006 and 2007. It is remarkable reading: Over 30 million NOK is “irregularly” paid to “companies owned or controlled by persons who at the time of the transactions were closely related parties.” The payments were apparently for various services. “In retrospect, these services seem to have lacked reality,” it is said in the report. In addition, the same companies have “purchased” software licenses valued at 18 million NOK, which Fast has not received payment for. “These costs were wrongly approved and in defiance of internal procedures and represented irregular payments from the company,” it is said.

    Now, that’s not quite the same as Riaz having been just “an employee” and the Fast problems having been caused by “a dearth of engineers who could install and customize the Fast Search system”. I sympathize with what happened to you with regards to ABI/INFORM — but that’s quite a different story, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    If you want to see the evidence that implicates the Attivio CEO, I can put you in touch with one of the Dagens Næringsliv journalists working on the story.

    For sure, this is a slippery slope. However — it’s not my slippery slope, but rather one that quite a number of former Fast execs are starting to slide down.

  2. Stephen E. Arnold on July 8th, 2008 8:45 am

    Thanks for writing Adriaan, I know you are busy.

    I rely on primary research for the most part. I have heard some back chatter that the author of the DM essay is sometimes off target.

    Is the author of the essay on target this time?

    I do own up to the fact that since my heart attack in February 2007, I do change my mind when I learn new things. I I try as best a 64 year old can to stick to the facts as I understand them.

    Stephen Arnold, July 8, 2008

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