Breakthrough Analysis: Enterprise Search: Time To Get Serious

The rise of Google, Yahoo and specialized search providers has radically altered our perception of information access, yet enterprise search implementations haven't kept up with the transformation in the consumer world. Plenty of vendors are developing breakthroughs, but the missing player has been Microsoft, and many believe progress in enterprise search is being held hostage by long and unwieldy upgrade cycles for systems including Windows, Office and SharePoint. Look beyond quick fixes and br

Mark Smith

Information is everywhere, but ironically, most of us find that as documents, data and other content proliferate, it's harder to get that information, when and how we need it. Given the importance and ever-increasing magnitude of the problem in this age of heightened regulatory compliance and accountability, why is it that neither side of the sales divide--neither vendors nor CIOs and their IT staffs--seems to be tackling the problem head on?

The rise of commercial search technology from Google, Yahoo and more specialized providers has radically altered our perception of information access, not to mention the business potential of search marketing and analysis of customer information gathered from the online sales channel.

As we go about our business, we create silos of documents and content. Files generated by Microsoft Office and other personal productivity tools are at home and work. Complicating matters, in recent years ERP, CRM, product lifecycle management and supply chain management systems have brought volumes of structured, transactional information into organizations. Along with legacy systems, these apps contain information that people must access to make decisions and measure and evaluate business performance.

Despite that fact that indexing, tagging and mining of text and other documents have matured, not enough companies are fully applying the ingredients of enterprise search technology. Many started with corporate portals. Today, corporate enterprise portals could scale to tens of thousands of interactive users, but such deployments are held back. A major reason is the immaturity of search and content discovery implementations, at least when compared with what's transpired in the consumer search market.

Early corporate portals from the likes of Plumtree, TopTier, Viador and Corporate Yahoo rode the initial wave of adoption. Most of those vendors have since disappeared or been acquired. Their products put down an important framework for the next generation, but fell short of becoming enterprise search vehicles because they lacked shared standards for discovering, tagging, indexing and integrating content. If nothing else, the portal pioneers made everyone aware that along with scalability challenges, enterprise computing kicks up unprecedented complexity and variety when it comes to accessing and presenting content that contains business information.

While Yahoo is still searching for a strategy after its initial corporate portal disappointment, pure-play search vendors are consolidating. Autonomy bought Verity to better compete with the majors, including Google. Most interesting for BI users are recent partnerships that integrate Google's Search Appliance, for example, with tools from BI providers, such as Business Objects, Cognos, Information Builders and SAS. By exposing the BI tools' metadata, search-tool users can find reports and other BI documents. Conversely, BI users can search for things like a customer's name and gain access to an assortment of content, including e-mails, contracts and presentations, to go with information coming from data warehouses or other conventional sources.

Enterprise search and information access providers Endeca and FAST are also garnering attention for providing the contextual insight that BI tools alone can't deliver. But the missing player so far is Microsoft. The company has made progress in integrating desktop systems with enterprise applications, but it hasn't made much headway with consumer or enterprise search. Many believe that the delays are due to search being held hostage to the company's long and unwieldy upgrade cycles for dependent systems, including Windows, Office and SharePoint.

Will Microsoft's technology infrastructure upgrades planned for 2007 have much impact? Yes, but organizations will look closely at upgrade costs and timing. It remains to be seen whether these factors deter companies from integrating the new technology with existing investments.

Technology available today can simplify the search problem faced by many organizations. One big plus with search tools is that unlike past information access solutions, they bring value to existing investments without heavy involvement by analysts and programmers. But to deliver the biggest bang, companies must look beyond quick solutions, take the problem seriously and incorporate search into their overall strategic information management strategy.

Mark Smith is CEO And Senior Vice President Of Research At Ventana Research. Write to him at [email protected].