Google Search Appliance: Showing Some Fangs

August 6, 2008

Assorted wizards have hit the replay button for Google’s official description of the Google Search Appliance (GSA)

If you missed the official highlights film, here’s a recap:

  • $30,000 starting price, good for two years, “support” and 500,000 document capacity. The bigger gizmos each can handle 10 million documents. These work like Christmas tree lights. When you need more, just buy more GSAs and plug them in. This is the same type of connectivity “big Google” enjoys when it scales.
  • Group personalization; for example, marketing wizards see brochures-type information and engineers see documents with equations
  • Metadata extraction so you can search by author, department, and other discovered index points.

If you want jump right into Google’s official description, just click here. You can even watch a video about Universal Search, which is Google’s way of dancing away from the far more significant semantic functionality that will be described in a forthcoming white paper from a big consulting firm. This forthcoming report–alas–costs money and it even contains my name in very small type as a contributor. Universal Search was the PR flash created for Google’s rush Searchology conference not long after an investment bank published a detailed report of a far larger technical search initiative (Programmable Search Engine) within the Googleplex. For true Google watchers, you will enjoy Google’s analysis of complexity. The title of the video is a bit of Googley humor because when it comes to enterprise or behind the firewall search, complexity is really not that helpful. Somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of the users of a search system are dissatisfied with the search system. Complexity is one of the “problems” that Google wants to resolve with its GSA.

When you buy the upscale versions of the GSA, you can implement fail over to another GSA. GSAs can be distributed geographically as well. The GSA comes with support for various repositories such as EMC Documentum. This means that the GSA can index the Document content without custom coding. The GSAs support the OneBox API, which is an important component in Google’s enterprise strategy. With the GSA, a clever programmer can use the GSA to create Vivisimo-style federated search results, display live data from a Microsoft Exchange server so a “hit” on a person shows that person’s calendar, integrate Web and third-party commercial content with the behind-the-firewall information, and perform other important content processing tasks.

Google happily names some of its larger customers, including Adobe Systems, Kimberly-Clark, and Sunnybrook Health. The company also does not mention the deep penetration of the GSA into government agencies, police organizations, and universities.

Good “run the game plan” write ups are available from CNet here, my favorite TechCrunch with Eric Schonfeld’s readable touch here, and the “stilling hanging in there” eWeek write up here.

splash for videos

After registering for the enterprise videos, you will see this splash page. You can get more information about the upgrade to Version 5 of the GSA.

My Take

Now, here’s my take on this upgrade:

First, Google is responding to demands for better connectivity, more administrative control, and better security. With each upgrade to the GSA, Google has added features that have been available for a quarter century from outfits like Verity (now part of the Autonomy holdings). The changes are important because Google is often bad mouthed for offering a poor enterprise search solution. With this release, I am not so sure that the negatives competitors heap on these cheerful yellow boxes are warranted. This version of the GSA is better than most of the enterprise search appliances with which I am familiar and a worthy competitor where administrative and engineering resources are scarce.

Second, this GSA like Version 5, “plays well with others.” The OneBox API–not the Appliance–is where the rubber meets the road. Fixating on the “box” is a bit of misdirection on the part of Google and those who write about search without much hands on experience. The OneBox API is more stable, richer, and quite clearly the most significant technical achievement of the GSA. Don’t believe me, do you? Navigate here and check out what some of these folks are doing with GSA, the OneBox APIs, and some of the supported Google APIs. Pretty darned amazing stuff may be found at and even places like Apple. Not all Google partners will chat you up. My son, however, is reasonably approachable, but he does have a Googley approach. You can read him here.

Third, in my two studies of Google which you can learn about here, I pointed out that the GSA works a bit like a combination of brand extender, competitive probe, and Trojan horse. I have been in a number of organizations–including a national lab–and have been shown a stack of GSAs. The idea is that this bunch of rocket scientists demonstrate their acumen by buying a couple million dollars worth of GSAs on the procurement team’s own initiative. I find that quite remarkable when other vendors have to wine, dine, and coo for months to make a sale. Not the GOOG: the procurement team made a decision and wrote a check for $1.8 million.

The Negatives

The downside of the GSA is easy to spell out. Google does not care too much for me or my view of the warts on the gleaming yellow GSA. If you are a Google fan, stop reading. Here’s the wart list:

  1. Support. Google does a miserable job of providing customer and technical support. The saving grace for Google is that its 20-somethings allow the partners to work with customers. If you pick up the phone and try to call Google, you will get nowhere. This is a big problem, and I think that Google is starting to understand that not everyone who licenses a GSA wants to “solve” a problem. Googlers are pretty much addicted to solving problems. Licensees in organizations that sell bricks, deliver babies, and fight crime don’t have the time to figure out Google’s cuteness. If you want support, skip Google. Go to a partner.
  2. Fail over. You want to fail over? You buy twice as many GSAs. When one fails, use the back up. Google does not talk about this too much. The reason is that when you go for the 24×7 type of solution most organizations want, you double the cost. Google also prices so that its GSA is competitive with comparable solutions from Autonomy, Endeca, and the pre-Microsoft Fast Search & Transfer. You want a bargain, look elsewhere. I maintain a list of 52 vendors and estimated annual costs of ownership if you don’t know where to look. (Note: I sell these data. I don’t put them in this Web log.
  3. A node. A GSA works as advertised, but it is becoming more of a node for information. You will want to pay close attention to what other Google functions and services you “hook” into the GSAs. Everything works today, and that functionality will be increased with each future release. The “set it and forget approach” is appealing, but you will want to take the time to internalize how the OneBox API and various Google features work with your Appliances going forward.

Net Net

If you are still reading, you will want to take an antacid. Also, please, don’t email me or have your attorney call me about the points below. I am expressing my opinion. Use the comments section to help me learn. This is a diary, subject to the disclaimer here.

  1. Google is the largest vendor of search solutions in the market at this time. You can make a case that SharePoint has more “search” solutions, but that’s not accurate. Google Search Appliance works; Microsoft’s native SharePoint search does not work as well and it is free with every SharePoint. Google charges money; Google has more than 20,000 licensees; Google is the big dog. Estimated revenues from search by my tally will be $600 million in FY2008, which may be understated because I am not paying any attention to the education revenue, the developer and partner fee allocations, maps, etc.
  2. Google can extend the GSA to be a more robust “transformer” at any time. This means that today’s sort of basic GSA can become a more robust machine with a code download. What functions can Google put into the GSA? Think about semantic processing and comprehensive analytics functions for starters.
  3. Software, not hardware, is where the action is at Google. In order to understand the GSA’s potential in the enterprise, you have to shift from the stated performance specifications and start reading the helpful documents here. Too difficult, you may say. If so, you are not Googley and you know why Google’s customer support, marketing, and sales methods are so unorthodox. There’s a little arrogance wafting through the Googleplex’s stuffed animals, bicycles, and lava lamps.

After years of Google watching, understanding Google is almost a test to determine if a customer is smart enough to deal with a real Googler. Spend some time with these lab papers. That’s where the future of the GSA is revealed. I particularly like the “On Distributing Symmetric Streaming Computations”. Streaming is not just on multi core processors; streaming is on nodes. Maybe those underutilized GSAs someday?

Stephen Arnold, August 6, 2008


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