I’m on holiday in the Caribbean and feeling a little bit sorry for CIOs. The cellular reception here veers between fantastic and non-existent and getting annoyed at wireless problems in a distant, exotic spot like this reminded me of how far we’ve come in terms of expectations of service levels.

I expect good service because I’m used to the consumer-grade service levels of a BlackBerry or Google – or even Microsoft Mobile now they’ve got their act together. I do feel for CIOs trying to compete when running legacy systems and trying to match user expectations of fast response times, faultless uptime and the whole new level of expectation we have, even of wireless networks, these days.

I came here after the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston. I gave my biggest speech in front of about 14,000 people from the Microsoft world and I must admit that I felt pretty nervous presenting our case study with the McLaren F1 team on how the caching technology in SQL Server 2008 helped produce 800-1000 megabits-per-second load times for critical motor racing performance data.

I must admit on this huge stage and in this state-of-the-art auditorium equipped with the best audio and video screen systems available, I felt pretty hyped. Then at the end of it, Steve Ballmer came on and gave me a big bear hug. You can say what you like about Ballmer, but he knows how to fill a room.

The really interesting thing I came away with from the conference was the thinking about search. Microsoft is also obviously interested, having agreed to buy the Norwegian company FAST Search & Transfer for about $1.2bn and then Powerset, the startup developer of a semantic – that is, natural language – search engine, for what reports suggest was about $100m.

Search is being implemented in enterprises as the new knowledge management and what’s coming down the line is the ability to mine the huge amount of untapped structured and unstructured data in the organisation.

So if you’re a clothes retailer you can compare size, colour, location, purchase ledger, sales and so on just by asking a question.

If there’s a downturn this will still be a strong area of investment because companies will want to get the most productivity out of their infrastructure even if there is a hiring freeze.

The FAST technology is brilliant. If you look at Ireland.com, which we produced, the whole thing is written in FAST and is really cool. What FAST couldn’t do on its own was to build a sales channel to make it widely available, but Microsoft fixes that. I have a lot of respect for Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch but Autonomy has never been that easy to use and FAST has the capacity to change the way search is used in businesses. You can just create applications very easily.

Microsoft is going to use SharePoint as the front-end and container for FAST search, which has its advantages as well as its challenges in getting .Net developers to translate their knowledge to SharePoint and then having search layered on top. But what you’ll have in the future is all of these crawlers going around your network and working on a time-series basis to understand context. You’ll see very interesting intranet access applications, especially in fields like energy, oil and gas.

As Microsoft starts to move forward it will also push a mass market forward. SAP, Oracle and IBM will join in through that Microsoft effect, and that should galvanise the whole market with people having much greater access to powerful enterprise search.

Speaking of entering the mainstream, virtualisation has suddenly become a hot topic for companies not normally counted among the classic early adopters. Microsoft’s Hyper-V was hyped out of all proportion but everyone at the company sees it as a way of shoring up sales if recession bites. It’s a great way for a CIO to show a CFO that they understand finance and it’s a great way to spin up new environments very quickly.

VMware is in a good place but there are only something like 17 per cent of corporates doing virtualisation in a serious way. Microsoft will push this hard and companies like HP and IBM may have to do something in response.

It’s interesting that although some people will pitch this as EMC’s VMware versus Microsoft, these two, and others in the industry, will often be cross-selling and licensing technologies.

Finally, the thing that’s really worrying Microsoft is Google Apps. I can see that for occasional access users, such as workers on the shop floor or contact centre workers, it could work for ad hoc access. Again though, you have to come back to service levels and the ability of these large service providers to build great scalability and reliability.

About the author

Mike Altendorf is founder and joint MD of Conchango, a consultancy that recently agreed a £42m sale to EMC