Microsoft promises results with Search Server

At a time when the enterprise search market in question is “at a tipping point,” according to one executive, Microsoft is set to release a pair of low-cost products that will compete with Google.

The products, Search Server 2008 and Search Server Express 2008, are based on technology pulled out of SharePoint Server 2007, according to Jared Spataro, group product manager for enterprise search at Microsoft.

The Express edition — available Tuesday in release candidate form — is a free download. It contains the same features as the commercial product but is restricted to a single installation. Both products will be generally available in the first half of 2008, Microsoft said.

The commercial version will be priced to sell into a market Microsoft believes is still widely untapped. “We hope it will help enterprise search move from kind of a sleepy town to more of a mainstream market,” Spataro said.

The established high-end vendors in enterprise search, such as Autonomy, offer products that work but can cost well into six figures, he said: “That’s a lot for people who are just trying to get search into their environment.”

Yet providing interested companies with cheaper entry into enterprise search is not a new idea. Google set the pace with its bargain-priced Mini and mid-level Search Appliance. And IBM late last year joined forces with Yahoo to produce a free search product, IBM Omnifind Yahoo Edition.

It remains to be seen just how affordable Microsoft’s offerings will be. Spataro said pricing has not been finalized, but he vowed the cost will be competitive.

Pricing for Google’s Mini begins at US$1,995 and goes up, depending on the number of documents being indexed. The Google Search Appliance, which can handle more documents and crawl enterprise databases, costs $30,000 to start.

Features within Microsoft’s Search Server include a streamlined installation process and support for federated search. The latter is built atop the open source project OpenSearch, Spataro said. However, both the Express and commercial edition of Search Server will naturally lack some of the higher-end features found in SharePoint Server, such as the ability to search by people and expertise.

One observer said Microsoft’s launch may follow other companies, but hardly comes too late.

“The market has been seeded by Google and others, but [Microsoft has] a history of taking technologies that were specialized and making them mainstream,” said Guy Creese, an analyst with Burton Group.

The key will be the channel, Creese said. “I think the hidden weapon here is Microsoft’s partners,” he said. Those companies stand ready to offer support services for Search Server, as well as variations tuned for different verticals, such as the legal community, he noted. “The smartness of this is, Microsoft ends up with an infinitely variable appliance because of its partners,” Creese said.

Search Server is solid enough from a purely technological perspective, Creese said. “If you compare it to the best-of-breed stuff, there are all kinds of tweaks they could put in,” he said. “Certainly for SMBs, I think it’s excellent.”

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