Thoughts on SharePoint and FAST Search

  • 25-Apr-2008

In our SharePoint Report 2008 we discuss SharePoint's shortcomings and strengths in the search space. While SharePoint 2007's search capabilities have been improved over the 2003 product, it's still not "enterprise class" for a variety of different reasons.

Clearly Microsoft saw this same shortcoming (both in SharePoint and it's overall search offerings) and announced that they were going to acquire enterprise search vendor FAST Search and Transfer (more information on FAST can be found in our Enterprise Search Report 2008).

For SharePoint users, this brings up a few opportunities and issues. In a previous blog post about the SharePoint conference, I highlighted the presentation that FAST employees gave. This presentation showed nifty new Silverlight-enabled search Web Parts. These Web Parts demonstrated several capabilities that FAST brings to the SharePoint world, like: content spotlighting, multimedia search, and taxonomy management.

The last capability is one that I believe would be particularly interesting for SharePoint users, since taxonomy management represents a challenging area for most SharePoint implementations -- SharePoint taxonomies are very rigidly based on physical structure of the SharePoint sites and leave little flexibility for a more logical taxonomic structure (Redmond folks would argue that the content query Web Part might help, but it's not a solution). That said, what Microsoft hasn't really provided is good guidance on what users can expect to see and any migration path between SharePoint search and FAST. Unfortunately, that really hasn't changed: Microsoft hasn't released any roadmap for FAST's integration, though you could argue it's still early.

That aside, what could the FAST acquisition mean to SharePoint customers? Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • The FAST acquisition was officially completed today. This is a good thing, since Microsoft can now get down to the business of integrating the company's technology with the rest of Microsoft's products. However, it's not clear what, if any, impact this acquisition will have in the very short term. Judging by the Groove acquisition, which preceded the SharePoint 2007 release by some months, an acquisition after the release will not yield any updates in the core product until SharePoint vNext (probably around 2010 or so) and beyond. However, I'd be willing to bet that some elements of the demo given at the SharePoint conference make their way to sites like Codeplex or as free downloads on Microsoft's site.
  • The former CEO of FAST will assume the role of VP of Enterprise Search. His responsibility will include all search products: SharePoint search, Search Server Express and FAST ESP. So I guess the "Enterprise Search" moniker might need to be removed or rewritten on the SharePoint search page; FAST is, by far, the new "enterprise" search product at Microsoft. What's interesting here is that Microsoft has historically brought Office-related technologies under one roof; just look at what happened to SharePoint specifically -- that product was once its own product group. As they integrate FAST, it would appear that this announcement suggests Microsoft might break out search into its own dedicated team and make SharePoint a "customer." This opens up the possibility of decoupling SharePoint from any particular search technology -- perhaps a pipe dream, but we can always hope.
  • In a blog entry on the Enterprise Search blog, Microsoft stated that the FAST offering will continue its Linux and Unix support. The blog entry was quick to reinforce the message that Microsoft does not want to support or wish to invest in Linux or Unix solutions. While they would like to "delight a core part of FAST's customer base," they are openly hoping those customers will convert to Windows and .NET. This does call into question whether this Linux/Unix support will be long for the world. In the short term, however, Microsoft can boast a better product from which to launch a play to be a real contender in the enterprise search space; see our related blog entries and article on FAST here. In the long term, Microsoft will have to come to grips with the fact that enterprises will continue to leverage non-Windows technology and if Microsoft wants to benefit from that revenue, they should consider continuing FAST's support for those technologies (their recent earnings announcement, and the subdued guidance for the year, may reinforce that message).
  • Microsoft won't support SharePoint on Linux <gasp!>. This is probably not a surprise to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Microsoft. However, the fact that FAST (currently) is supported on Linux may introduce greater content aggregation and, certainly, search capabilities within SharePoint. Let's hope that Microsoft sees it that way.

In general, the FAST acquisition, for SharePoint, will likely have little impact short term. Over the longer term, it's clear that the Office 14 version of SharePoint will be substantially improved in the search area (depending on the SharePoint product team's willingness to implement the new technology). I would personally like to see some add-ons in the near term, since that would improve search within organizations that may have both tools.

Stay tuned for more on this topic as the integration progresses.

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