Microsoft vs Google: Let the battle begin

Written on 01 September, 2006 by Angus Kidman
Categories NewsTags google

Microsoft and Google are conducting a very public battle to grab the biggest possible share of the enterprise search market, but in truth, it's much more than a two-horse race. Angus Kidman investigates the complicated task of searching across enterprise data and finds out who really has what it takes to win.

Searching for information within enterprise applications is hardly a new concept, but workers today expect something rather more sophisticated than just scrolling through a database. Search provides an interesting example of the much-discussed "consumerisation" of enterprise IT, where workers increasingly expect their personal experience of technologies to be reflected in the systems they use at work. At home, we're used to typing in a simple query at our search engine of choice and being bombarded with results, so we don't want finding information at work to be any more challenging.

The increasing volume of digital information in the workplace and its easy distribution by email has reignited interest in search technology as a category. Gartner predicts a compound annual growth rate of 9.4 percent for enterprise search technologies over the next few years, with global sales of enterprise licences rising from US$335.4 million in 2005 to US$525.5 million in 2010.

Some of the most visible players in the consumer space appear ready to fill that demand. Web search market leader Google has recently began selling its search appliances into the local market. "We're extending the reach of Google Search within the enterprise environment," says Kate Vale, Google Australia head of sales and operations.

Google is hoping users familiar with its consumer operation will want to use its technologies elsewhere. "Projects fail on whether or not users actually adopt them," says Kevin Gough, Google's product manager. "Users don't change their wants and needs once they step into the office.

"There's an exploding amount of content within the enterprise. We see this as moving search from the top-right of the page to the centre of the page, making it the primary navigational tool."

Google's enterprise division sells appliances, the Google Search Appliance and the Google Mini, which use customised versions of the company's content crawling and indexing technology to provide search access to enterprise information. The products are sold along with an enterprise-ready version of its Google Desktop search product that can be customised by administrators, and its OneBox platform for adding extensions to control access and indexing for particular types of content, such as ERP and CRM applications.

In Australia, Google has signed up systems integrator BearingPoint to help enterprises integrate the search appliances into their networks. "Doing enterprise search with Google is as much of a change in the way our clients will do business as the move from the mainframe to the desktop, or from the desktop to Web applications," says BearingPoint partner Robert Hillard.

Microsoft, for its part, doesn't want to cede any of its existing space in IT shops to its key online rival, and is beefing up its own enterprise search solution. "We're going to provide a whole new gamut of search opportunity," says Greg Stone, regional technology officer for Microsoft.

While Microsoft is heavily hyping its new Windows Live Search for the mass market, its strategy for enterprise search centres on a slightly more familiar technology: SharePoint, its portal server software. SharePoint Server 2007, which is due for release in November, forms the centrepiece of the company's plans to make content from a range of applications accessible and searchable.

"In the enterprise, you've got different challenges: the need to access structured and unstructured data, you have to consider access privileges, and you've got different systems and platforms," Stone says. "Search is an ingredient; organisations need to think of it as a multi-level thing. We don't just go to a specific tool, we need to look at search across the board."

Microsoft argues that leveraging SharePoint's existing links to Active Directory will allow existing security and role definitions to easily be preserved, while its tight integration with the Office applications suite (also due for an upgrade at the same time) will make utilising those search results easier. At the same time, a series of Web services APIs will make it easy for external developers to link directly from search results to specialised business applications, Stone says.

"Mass-market users understand they are searching the whole Internet which governs their expectations around the results."

Brad Kasell, IBM

Who will win?

While they may have the most visible brand names, Google and Microsoft are far from the only players in the market. And in a recent evaluation of the enterprise search market, Forrester found both tech heavyweights to be lacking in their ability to provide what the market needs.

In fact, Forrester Research panned the current search functionality in SharePoint, saying it "compares poorly in all categories" relative to its rivals.

"SharePoint's huge success has come in spite of its weak search capabilities," analyst Matt Brown concluded.

The same analysis praised Google for raising awareness of enterprise search but said it lacks advanced features and highly customisable security. That criticism has recurred in other locations.

"Enterprises should test the appliances before purchasing them and should not expect Google to measure up to enterprise-specialist competitors, some of whom are competitive on price," Gartner analyst Whit Andrews wrote earlier this year.

And what of the competitors? There are many vendors aiming for a piece of the search pie, from business intelligence players such as Cognos and Information Builders which are both trying to leverage their investment in enterprise access, through to specialist search providers such as Fast Search and Transfer, Isys and Open Text.

Even developers of specialised applications (such as ecommerce platforms) and broad-based systems such as databases, like IBM and Oracle. Google and Microsoft are now trying to get in on the act as well. (See "Enterprise Search Platform Market Landscape" graph opposite for more detail on the variety of enterprise search platforms).

A recent CMS Watch analysis of 28 enterprise search products concluded that integration was a challenge for all the major players, and that niche tools would continue to play a significant role for some time to come.

Gartner argues that while no one player will be dominant in the near future, most companies will settle on a single-vendor search strategy rather than combining components from different players.

IDC research vice president Susan Feldman argues that the business intelligence vendors have a current market advantage as they are larger than the specialised players and have already invested resources in integrating with a variety of business platforms. However, the market is still "up for grabs", she says.

One of the problems that will dictate who will capture this market is that delivering a product that can effectively search across enterprise data isn't as easy as it sounds. In practice, getting a Web-like search experience requires more than simply plugging in a Google Mini appliance or rolling out a portal site, a fact most players in the space acknowledge. "We do not minimise the complexity of doing projects in that environment," says BearingPoint's Hillard.

Delivering enterprise search

Staff might well demand a Web-style interface that allows simple searching of all relevant enterprise applications, but it isn't as straightforward as it may seem. Some problems that come into play include accessing information from a variety of data sources, ensuring security and access rules of data aren't breached and, of course, actually delivering on the expectations of employees—Internet and enterprises searches are two very different kettles of fish and user expectations change accordingly.

Enterprise data generally exists in a variety of locations and has well-defined security and confidentiality requirements. "Mass-market search solutions are very broad in scope and are satisfied by search engines ‘spidering' Web sites to add indexed data to the engine. Enterprise data is housed in technology silos which are not easily penetrated in this manner," says Paul Beks, managing director for BI software provider Information Builders.

As hard as accessing information silos may be, security is the issue that causes the most problems. "The types of information that an employee may be searching for may be company-confidential or restricted in how it may be handled," says Brad Kasell, Asia-Pacific program manager for emerging technologies at IBM's Software Group. "Security, access controls, data formats and the like can act as significant inhibitors to data distribution. The recent rise in standards-based, service-oriented architectures (SOA) goes some way to addressing this problem."

A differentiator is that enterprise search is much more context-driven than the typical Google search. "Current enterprise challenges define requirements for search capabilities across multiple applications, using a common interface, but specific to the roles of the people performing tasks within the enterprise," says Information Builders' Beks.

Security requires a deep understanding of the roles individual workers play within the enterprise. "Role-based systems must take user goals into consideration and must also align with a complete understanding of workflow and how the user interacts with information," says Bruce McFarlane, managing director for information provider Factiva Asia-Pacific.

And lastly, employee expectations. "Mass-market users understand they are searching the whole Internet which governs their expectations around the results they expect," says IBM's Kasell. "Employees are more likely to be searching across a more limited set of data, usually bound up in disparate applications or databases, and trying to derive connections across those sources."

"Basic search approaches are useful and cost-effective for most corporate employees, yet they are seldom intelligent enough to achieve the relevance, accuracy and insight users demand when searching across complex information sources," Forrester analyst Matthew Brown noted during a teleconference in 2005.

On the other hand, business users have the advantage of often working within a better-defined domain. "Enterprises have the ‘luxury' of being able to manipulate their data in a much more controlled way, so are able to establish data warehouses and feeds of highly relevant transactional data that would be inaccessible externally," Kasell says. "To some extent, businesses should already know the type and potentially volume of search results and should tailor the technology to those objectives."

Technology is slowly evolving to meet better meed the needs of employees. Analyst firm IDC predicts that the first advanced language analysis tools will hit the market in 2006, providing a threat to current generation players that largely rely on basic keyword-driven searches. While many users enter so-called "natural language queries", most search platforms focus on the keywords in those queries and simply ignore connecting information, even though this may not produce the desired results.

"Mass-market search solutions are very broad in scope and are satisfied by search engines ‘spidering' Web sites to add indexed data to the engine. Enterprise data is . . . not easily penetrated in this manner." Paul Beks, Information Builders

Planning for enterprise search

For all of the hype that surrounds Google and Microsoft and their entry into the enterprise search market, what is important is perspective. Competition is strong in this market, and neither company has what it takes at the moment to become the be-all and end-all in enterprise search.

But, as Forrester acknowledges, one of the best things Google has brought to the market is a low price point. Enterprise search products are complex, and they have a price to match. This means improvements to search capabilities to most Australian businesses has been out of reach, until now.

For example, when the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA) decided to upgrade its guidelines for payment allocation, from a custom electronic publishing platform to an intranet-based system, offering a guide-specific search would have been a useful add-on.

"We would have loved to have a search capability across the records specifically," says Melanie Randall, manager for knowledge training, library and information services at the department.

However, the tight timeframe for the upgrade (forced by a pending withdrawal of support for the old publishing platform) meant that the department ultimately had to settle for using the basic intranet search options that already existed, rather than enhancing the search options available for use with the guide. "The competition for resources is such that the here and now is the priority rather than the long-term view," Randall says.

By lowering the entry price, Google has effectively expanded the market by bringing in a larger group of potential customers.

A Forrester survey of users found that 61 percent wanted improved search capabilities on their existing sites. While the jury is out on which vendor will dominate the market, at the moment the clear winner is the consumer.