Exclusive Interview: Charlie Hull, FLAX

September 1, 2010

Cambridge, England, has been among the leaders in the open source search sector. The firm offers the FLAX search system and offers a range of professional services for clients and those who wish to use FLAX. Mr. Hull will be one of the speakers in the upcoming Lucene Revolution Conference, and I sought his views about open source search.


Charlie Hull, FLAX

Two years ago, Mr. Hull participated in a spirited discussion about the future of enterprise search. I learned about the firm’s clients which include Cambridge University, IBuildings, and MyDeco, among others. After our “debate,” I learned that Mr. Hull worked with the Muscat team, a search system which provided access to a wide range of European content in English and other languages. Dr. Martin Porter’s Muscat system was forward looking and broke new ground in my opinion. With the surge of interest in open source search, I found his comments quite interesting. The full text of the interview appears below:

Why are you interested in open source search?

I first became interested in search over a decade ago, while working on next-generation user interfaces for a Bayesian web search tool. Search is increasingly becoming a pervasive, ubiquitous feature – but it’s still being done so badly in many cases. I want to help change that.  With open source, I firmly believe we’re seeing a truly disruptive approach to the search market, and a coming of age of some excellent technologies. I’m also pretty sure that open source search can match and even surpass commercial solutions in terms of accuracy, scalability and performance. It’s an exciting time!

What is your take on the community aspect of open source search?

On the positive side, a collaborative, community-based development method can work very well and lead to stable, secure and high-performing software with excellent support. However it all depends on the ‘shape’ of the community, and the ability of those within it to work together in a constructive way – luckily the open source search engines I’m familiar with have healthy and vibrant communities.

Commercial companies are playing what I call the “open source card.” Won’t that confuse people?

There are some companies who have added a drop of open source to their largely closed source offering – for example, they might have an open source version with far fewer features as tempting bait. I think customers are cleverer than this and will usually realize what defines ‘true’ open source – the source code is available, all of it, for free.

Those who have done their research will have realized true open source can give unmatched freedom and flexibility, and will have found companies like ourselves and Lucid Imagination who can help with development and ongoing support, to give a solid commercial backing to the open source community. They’ll also find that companies like ourselves regularly contribute code we develop back to the community.

What’s your take on the Oracle Google Java legal matter with regards to open source search?

Well, the Lucene engine is of course based on Java, but I can’t see any great risk to Lucene from this spat between Oracle and Google, which seems mainly to be about Oracle wanting a slice of Google’s Android operating system. I suspect that (as ever) the only real benefactors will be the lawyers…

What are the primary benefits of using open source search?

Freedom is the key one – freedom to choose how your search project is built, how it works and its future. Flexibility is important, as every project will need some amount of customization. The lack of ongoing license fees is an important economic consideration, although open source shouldn’t be seen as a ‘cheap and basic’ solution – these are solid, scalable and high performing technologies based on decades of experience. They’re mature and ready for action as well – we have implemented complete search solutions for our customers, scaling to millions of documents, in a matter of days.

When someone asks you why you don’t use a commercial search solution, what do you tell them?

The key tasks for any search solution are indexing the original data, providing search results and providing management tools. All of these will require custom development work in most cases, even with a closed source technology. So why pay license fees on top? The other thing to remember is anything could happen to the closed source technology – it could be bought up by another company, stuck on a shelf and you could be forced to ‘upgrade’ to something else, or a vital feature or supported platform could be discontinued…there’s too much risk. With open source you get the code, forever, to do what you want with. You can either develop it yourself, or engage experts like us to help.

What about integration? That’s a killer for many vendors in my experience.

Why so? Integrating search engines is what we do at Flax day-to-day – and since we’ve chosen highly flexible and adaptable open source technology, we can do this in a fraction of the time and cost. We don’t dictate to our customers how their systems will have to adapt to our search solution – we make our technology work for them. Whatever platform, programming language or framework you’re using, we can work with it.

How do people reach you?

Via our Web site at http://www.flax.co.uk – we’re based in Cambridge, England but we have customers worldwide. We’re always happy to speak to anyone with a search-related project or problem. You’ll also find me in Boston in October of course!

Thank you.

Stephen E Arnold, September 1, 2010



One Response to “Exclusive Interview: Charlie Hull, FLAX”

  1. Some Call Flax on September 9th, 2010 11:36 pm

    […] Exclusive Interview: Charlie Hull, FLAX : Beyond Search Commercial companies are playing what I call the “open source card.” Won't that confuse people? There are some companies who have added a drop of open source to their largely closed source offering – for example, they might have an open . […]

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