Microsoft makes FAST move to expand its enterprise search capabilities

Claims buyout of Fast Search & Transfer will give it an edge in corporate search apps

Microsoft Corp. says that buying Fast Search & Transfer ASA, in a $1.2 billion deal announced today, will make it the only vendor that can offer a unified enterprise search platform capable of scaling to billions of documents.

But at least one analyst thinks that customers will face some risks as Microsoft tries to integrate its SharePoint content management software with the search technology offered by Oslo-based Fast Search & Transfer, which is known as FAST.

Tying together the two product lines "will be a challenge," independent search analyst Stephen Arnold wrote today in a blog posting in which he also predicted more consolidation among the 50 or so companies now competing in the enterprise search market.

Arnold said he thinks that the engineers at Microsoft and FAST are up to the integration challenge. But, he added, "the question will be, 'How long will the meshing take?' If speedy, Microsoft can expand its service offering and put another hurdle in the path of companies like Google eager to win more of the Microsoft market. If slow, the delay will allow further incursions into Microsoft territory by Google as well as IBM, Oracle and SAP, among others."

During a conference call after Microsoft announced its intentions to acquire FAST, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, declined to comment in detail about the company's product integration plans.

But Raikes contended that the combination of the two vendors will give Microsoft a leg up on its enterprise search rivals. "Most customers are recognizing that they don't want their search to be fragmented across their organization," he said. "They want to choose a search strategy and products from one vendor."

Currently, corporate users have to "choose between a high-end-focused search [platform] or a broader infrastructure technology," Raikes continued. He said that by marrying FAST's products with SharePoint, "we are clearly the leader in end-to-end search in the corporation."

FAST has about 2,000 customers, according to Arnold's blog posting. The Norwegian company reported $162 million in revenue during 2006, but its revenue and stock price collapsed last year, forcing it to lay off one-fifth of its employees and slash unsuccessful product lines in order to regain profitability.

John Lervik, FAST's CEO, said the restructuring refocused the company "on its search platform, which fits very well with Microsoft's strategy." FAST's board of directors unanimously recommended that shareholders accept the buyout deal, which is expected to be completed in this year's second quarter.

Raikes was undaunted by FAST's financial struggles, saying that corporations are drowning in information overload and clamoring for search technologies such as the ones offered by FAST.

"I find it fascinating that you can get last night's football scores in five seconds, yet it can take five hours to track down last year's business plan," he said. "We believe enterprise search will be for workers tomorrow what Internet search is for consumers today."

Microsoft already offers several search products, including SharePoint, which the company says has about 85 million licensed end users.

"SharePoint can deal with tens of millions of documents," Raikes said. In comparison, the latest beta releases of FAST's search software can handle 1 billion records per server, Lervik noted.

In addition to the corporate plans, Lervik said that there have already been talks between the two companies about how to integrate FAST's technology into Microsoft's Windows Live search engine for home users.

FAST competes with specialized search vendors such as Autonomy PLC and Isys Search Software Pty., as well as with the likes of Google Inc. Sydney, Australia-based Isys was quick to raise questions about the planned acquisition by Microsoft, claiming in a statement that the combination of SharePoint and FAST's software will create "the potential for real integration headaches" for customers.

(For more analysis of the Microsoft-FAST deal, see this blog posting on Computerworld's Web site.)

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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