Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Norwegian enterprise search software company Fast Search & Transfer (FAST) merits a closer look. Not just because it’s a fairly large acquisition by Microsoft’s standards (£600m in cash), but because of what it says about the overall state of information management within the enterprise.

Microsoft owns what I like to call the means of information production, eg Office. MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook are the tools used to create the vast majority of the world’s unstructured information; that is information not usually stored in a relational database or more accurately, not usefully stored in a relational database. Obviously Outlook emails are managed usually using an Exchange email server. But information created using Word, Excel and PowerPoint mostly resides on intranet file systems, on desktops and increasingly, on Microsoft’s Sharepoint server. Studies have shown that information workers waste many hours each week trying to find information that has already been created – often by themselves – because of the lack of good enterprise-wide search tools.

But Microsoft has done very little – even after the introduction of SharePoint in 2001 – to help CIOs not only get their arms around all this unstructured information, but more pertinently, to figure out what it is, where it is, how valuable or risky it is and how most effectively to store it. The acquisition of FAST should be seen in that context, as it has the potential to change all that.

Mini-industries have sprung up around SharePoint, as is common with such a widely deployed piece of critical software as SharePoint. Microsoft claims at least 85 million SharePoint server users worldwide and it accounted for about _400m in sales in the year to 30 June 2007. There are lots of ways to poke holes in these numbers, but adoption of SharePoint – both the server and the free Windows SharePoint services – is happening on a large scale. Not surprisingly Microsoft has described Sharepoint as the fastest-growing product in its history.

One of those mini-industries was search, with a handful of start-ups such as BA-Insight and Coveo and SurfRay offering more robust search for Sharepoint than Microsoft offers. So the need for better search within Sharepoint was demonstrable, and Microsoft acted to provide it. Those companies’ prospects now look a tad bleak and reduce the options open to the CIO.

It’s also interesting to note that Microsoft is the last of the major software suppliers to take enterprise search seriously. IBM was the first, with its OmniFind family of search products, and then Oracle launched its Secure Enterprise Search 10g in 2006, while SAP is currently testing its own search product – which is very tightly integrated into SAP applications – with a few early adopter customers. Microsoft shops can now look forward to the prospect of getting a powerful, scalable search engine from the same company that supplies their collaboration tools (SharePoint) and those aforementioned means of information production, ie Office.

CIOs have many valid security concerns over enterprise-wide search, because many workers should not be able to even see documents in search results, let alone be able to open them. And such concerns have held back enterprise-wide deployments, limiting them often to department-level implementations only. But such cautious deployments also stunt the software’s ability to provide demonstrable value to the enterprise.
But with Microsoft owning both the tools used to create the information and the tools used to manage and find that information, workers may eventually be able to stop wasting so much time trying to find that PowerPoint presentation they know they created two years ago that they want to reuse.

Nick Patience is managing analyst at The 451 group