Microsoft has entered the fray in low-end enterprise search, with the announcement of its intention to offer both free and paid-for versions of server software to compete with offerings from Google and IBM.
The products are Search Server 2008, and Search Server 2008 Express, which is the freely downloadable version. No pricing is available for the paid-for version, which it said will become commercially available in the first half of next year. Express is available now as a release candidate, which is a version with potential to be a final product, ready to release unless fatal bugs emerge.
They’re both quite substantial search engines, capable of searching across file shares, document management repositories and intranets, as well as carrying out federated search on designated authorities such as Wikipedia or Google, said Rob Gray, SharePoint product manager at Microsoft UK. The only difference is that the paid-for edition can be deployed in a high-availability farm, whereas Express is a single instance, though it can be connected to a SQL Server database for scalability.
Gray’s area of responsibility gives the clue to where this technology has come from, in that Microsoft has already offered an enterprise search capability within SharePoint when it launched the 2007 version. You could have it as a standalone search server, but that meant configuring it as such, he said.
The new Search Server products are pre-configured, offering not only ease of implementation, but also, presumably, a considerably lower price, since they have none of the content management, collaboration, and social networking that is built into SharePoint.
That said, Microsoft does plan to offer connectors into document/content management systems, the first two of which will be for Documentum and FileNet and are due to be available as Search Server itself goes on sale next year.
The new products will compete against Google’s Mini and Search Appliance, as well as against IBM’s freebie software, OmniFind Yahoo! Edition. Gray noted, however, that all three products impose limits on the number of documents that can be searched. The Google Mini maxes at 300,000, he said, while the Search Appliance goes up to 30 million, while the IBM product has a limit of 500,000.
The Search Server imposes no such limit. However, there is a practical restriction in that the Express version uses a SQL Server Express database, which has a maximum capacity of 4GB.
Another difference between our product and the IBM offering is that on ours you can do relevance tuning and security trimming, said Gray. He said this means that if a document is off limits to the person carrying out the search, its existence will not be flagged up in the results. It’s no good there being a restricted document called ‘Job Cuts in November’ that I can’t see, if the search shows me the title as one of its results, he said.
Just like data warehousing, enterprise search is going downmarket with these low-end offerings, in some cases even delivered as a box. One can imagine that Search Server too will be offered by some of Microsoft’s hardware partners as an appliance.
That it is offering a free version to go up against the IBM/Yahoo package shows how much Microsoft continues to want ownership of enterprise search, at least at the low end of the spectrum where its products traditionally reign supreme.
It seems content, for now, to let Autonomy, Endeca, and Fast duke it out at the high end, presumably on the understanding that as hardware prices inevitably head south and processing power increases, it can address that segment of the market later.