The future of enterprise search

Future search systems will get to know the user as much as the content they crawl, analyzes, and indexes

Some observers point to Microsoft's FAST purchase as an indication the market had reached a sort of tipping point.

Microsoft's plans for FAST are still in their beginning stages. Initially, its SharePoint collaboration platform will serve as "a center of gravity," said Jared Spataro, a company spokesman.

He indicated that Microsoft, which has tried but so far failed to buy Yahoo, partly to boost its hand in Web search, will embed enterprise search throughout its products: "Search will be everywhere in the future. Every application interface."

"If I were to point to any one thing, it's that search is still a new and emerging market," Spataro said. "The real opportunity for us is that there's more green-field than anything."

It is an apt observation in light of the reality within enterprises today. Companies that agreed to speak about their implementations revealed that while the basic work of indexing content and providing internal users with search results is well under way, it could be years before they tap the capabilities described by Creese and others.

Honeywell's transportation systems division was an early adopter of Google's Search Appliance, which replaced a limited, older search tool, said Jerry Ibrahim, director of IT for emerging technologies and innovation.

The company was drawn to Google's offering because it is appliance-based and installation was "a breeze." It used homegrown tools to integrate with various data sources and applications and now is experimenting with Google's OneBox API (application programming interface) for making those connections, he said.

To explain the company's goals for enterprise search, Ibrahim gave the example of asking a newly hired engineer a specific question about one of the company's products. "You ask someone who's been in Honeywell for 10 years, they'll know. The guy who's been there one month won't know. And he'll spend a week trying to figure it out."

But if Ibrahim was to ask the worker a general question, such as how many hummingbirds there are in the world, he'd likely go to Google and find the answer within minutes.

"That's our journey, to get to that point for our own internal stuff," he said.

Looking forward, the company is thinking about ways to pull in user information and improve results, he said: "We want to start collecting these statistics and putting some more advanced thought and logic and biasing into [the system]."

Edens & Avant, which owns and develops shopping centers on the US East Coast, may be a little further along the visionary path set out by observers like Creese.

The company uses Oracle's Secure Enterprise Search product, said Dale Johnston, vice president and chief information officer. The search technology works in concert with the company's portal, which it has "personified," Johnston said.

"We developed this concept that the corporate intranet was actually a co-worker, your best friend at work. The person, if you had a question, you'd look to them to get the answer," he said.

The portal also includes a social-networking component, with employees able to maintain profiles, he said: "We're hoping that we can prioritize the search results based on what people are working on."

However, adoption of the social-networking component has been "very poor," limiting the value of the data available, he said.

"People will use it when they find that it's helping benefit them," he predicted. The company plans to set up automatic triggers that will remind users to update their profiles, according to Johnston.

Yet, even as its search strategy grows in sophistication, the company remains engaged in basic IT trench warfare.

It has roughly 32 data sources and has finished processing seven of them for search, Johnston said. The project started in March 2007, and he expects it will take 36 months to complete all of them.

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