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Microsoft Enters Enterprise Search Market

With Search Server and Search Server Express based on SharePoint, the company hopes to bridge the gap between free and expensive corporate search products.

Microsoft on Tuesday is expected to announce it's entry into enterprise search territory. It's doing so with the boldly stated intention to bring business search to the mass market, but even Microsoft admits that change could take a while.

Microsoft is scheduled to announce it plans to release two stand-alone enterprise search products, Search Server and Search Server Express, by early next year. These products will use SharePoint's own search capability as the core technology that will drive Microsoft's business search ambitions. Search Server Express will be available for free, while Speech Server will add scalability and be available for a fee.

There's certainly an opportunity there for Microsoft. The company said it has found that the average information worker does 20 searches for information every day and spends 9.5 hours every week just looking for stuff. Of the 6 million businesses -- that's everything from mom-and-pops to Wal-Mart -- in the United States, Microsoft said only 1% use any business search products.

Business search offerings today generally fall into one of two buckets. Either they are complicated and expensive but powerful, or cheap and easy, but relatively limited in scale. Some high-end search platforms from companies like Autonomy can cost several hundred thousand dollars and take months to set up. Meanwhile, cheap and free platforms from Yahoo and Google have artificial caps on the numbers of documents they can search, lack real security, or are too much like Internet search engines, rather than having businesses in mind.

Microsoft group product manager Jared Spataro said Search Server hopes to bridge that gap.

"We really think that in retrospect this announcement will be a significant milestone for the search market," he said. "Business search is coming into its own and we saw this opportunity for us to be the leader in creating the mainstream market." The company's significantly ratcheted up the size of its search team in recent months, he adds. That's not to say Microsoft doesn't have a big task ahead of it convincing people that it will return relevant results, be extensible and flexible, and be secure.

Security is one of the main reasons companies hold off on giving search tools to their employees, and Microsoft admits some free and cheap products don't cut it. In pitching Search Server, however, Spataro makes sure to assert the products' security cred. He said Search Server won't let employees find or have access to any documents or files they aren't credentialed for. That is, of course, assuming credentials are set up properly and files are stored where they're supposed to be.

Both of Microsoft's stand-alone search products will include a Web interface for search called Search Center, no pre-set document limits, some ability for users and administrators to tune the relevance of results, the ability to control and manage indexing, reporting on queries and results, connectors to search through more and different types of results than covered by the server upon install, and a short -- Microsoft said 30-minute -- install process. Search Server Express is limited to one server; the full version adds multi-server capability.

Microsoft is still positioning SharePoint as the go-to product for companies that need more advanced expertise searching and relational databases, though Search Server can index SharePoint, EMC Documentum and IBM FilemNet content stores. That would cost thousands as an add-on even to most high-end search platforms, but it's free with Search Server Express. That's not the only place Microsoft stands to change the cost equation. While Google's search appliance, for example, costs $30,000 to scale to 500,000 documents, Microsoft will do it for free. Microsoft also adds the ability to federate search -- to return results from DHL, YouTube or Live Search, for example -- and that doesn't typically come free either.

There's still some left to be desired. Search Server isn't yet integrated into Windows Vista's desktop search, as might be expected. It also requires companies to have other Microsoft products installed including the .Net Framework, Internet Information Services and Windows SharePoint Services. Some advanced search features are also missing: Search Server remains primarily a keyword-based search engine.

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