We've had to wait a while: ever since Microsoft acquired Fast Search & Transfer almost exactly a year ago, the big question was what would happen to both FAST ESP and Microsoft's SharePoint (and Search Server, which is a dressed-down, search-only version of MOSS). In our Search & Information Access Report we criticized Microsoft for showing few signs of a long-term strategy.
This has been a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of anyone trying to determine their own plans for search in a SharePoint implementation, or for those deciding whether or not to start implementing ESP for large site search (or e-commerce) projects. Enterprise search projects like these can be expensive and complicated; you don't really want to have to switch on the whim of Redmond's roadmap. Without that roadmap, you're lost.
Fortunately, Microsoft has recognized the problem and has started to clarify its plans. Today the vendor announced "FAST Search for Internet Business" and "FAST Search for SharePoint" as the two spearheads for future ESP development. Neither are coming to a software supermarket near you anytime soon -- expect to see the first betas in the second half of this year, at the earliest -- but at least we're now getting a glimpse of the direction the company is taking in enterprise search.
FAST Search for Internet Business
The "Internet Business" edition will try to keep some of FAST ESP's largest customers on board. It's described as an evolution of the current site search / e-commerce solutions with sophisticated controls over, for instance, ranking of results (which is of special importance for e-commerce, where it is paramount customers are shown the right way to products you want to sell). In this area, the FAST Search for Internet Business will have to stay competing with products such as Endeca's (and Autonomy, which is slowly starting to add functionality in this area, as well). No big changes here -- Microsoft has even vowed to keep supporting FAST on Unix/Linux. By that, they mean full support, including maintained product development, not just patches, which is probably the most unexpected news here.
FAST Search for SharePoint
The SharePoint flavor will see the light together with SharePoint 14 (which will probably be early 2010). Microsoft has worked with FAST (now the "enterprise search expertise center" in Norway) to Microsoften ESP. FAST's current product isn't an easy product to implement and run (to be fair, neither are most of the products in the same tier, such as Autonomy's IDOL). Likewise, it's quite a task to make it as easy to install and run as, say, MS SQL or Office, which is what Microsoft customers will expect (or demand).
Though Microsoft admits it's not going to simplify the install (yet), the company says a lot of work is going into at least integrating administration of FAST into SharePoint 14 administration. So while getting the index up may still be a challenge, at least when it runs, it will be easy to manipulate. That's in fact quite a logical progression from where FAST was headed even before the acquisition (streamlining the administrative UI and building integration with MOSS). But it'll be some time before FAST will be an integral part of SharePoint -- that'll have to wait for SharePoint 15.
Interestingly, Microsoft is not phasing out the current SharePoint Search components (and the Search Server and Search Server Express); these will remain available as low-cost (and out-of-the-box) alternatives. The idea is that if you outgrow SharePoint Search's capabilities (which is more likely than most customers would want), you can add a FAST Search for SharePoint server to your infrastructure. Redmond is also promising to slash pricing -- FAST for SharePoint will be around the $25K a server mark (it will also require SharePoint client licenses, but you'd already have those if you're running MOSS).
My verdict on the announced plans? Well, I'm not in shock and awe with what's about to happen, and it's not going to happen anytime soon, either. From what I've heard so far, this is more about evolution of the ESP product into a Microsoft product, which will take time. The most important thing is that Microsoft has now committed itself to clear goals, which in my book means that FAST is a viable alternative again. The company is even luring current prospects on FAST ESP for SharePoint (which is the current ESP 5.3 product and its SharePoint integration bits) with special pricing and the promise of a relatively easy upgrade path once SharePoint 14 arrives.
Going forward, the biggest challenge will be in making customers understand what the different search options are, and what the capabilities will be in a particular setup -- particularly with the MOSS spectrum ranging from Search Server Express, Search Server, MOSS Search, and FAST for SharePoint.
Another challenge will be the release schedule for the various search flavors. We've seen this happen with the release of Search Server (Express) 2008, the standalone version of MOSS Search that came out early 2008 and, until a MOSS service pack was released mid-2008, actually had more features than the full SharePoint 2007's search engine. That kind of mis-synchronization is going to be even more of an issue with FAST for Internet Business keeping a yearly release schedule, and both FAST for SharePoint, SharePoint itself, and the derivative Search Servers on a separate schedule with releases every 24 to 36 months. According to Microsoft, it will try hard to find a good rhythm in the releases (with intermediary upgrades for the MOSS versions so they won't get too far behind the Internet Business search engine).
Drawing up the balance sheet, I'd say there's nothing really electrifying happening here. But now, at least, we know what the road ahead looks like, and that's the kind of stability that will push Microsoft/FAST a fair bit to the left in our Search & Information Access Cross-Check chart -- from "turbulence" and "shifting" to "balance." And that's exactly where many technology buyers would like their solution to be.