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Will Microsoft's FAST Buy Pay Off Long Term?

In searching, pardon the pun, for ways to expand its enterprise presence, Microsoft dipped into its considerable piggy bank this week, plunking down about $1.2 billion in cash to purchase Norwegian enterprise search company, Fast Search & Transfer (FAST). The deal is expected to close in the second quarter.

Several analysts and competitors interviewed agree the deal meshes with Microsoft's enterprise ambitions, greatly shores up its search portfolio and shows the software giant is serious about fending off the search juggernaut Google.

"Microsoft has large ambitions for big enterprise accounts that have been traditionally the exclusive club of Unix and mainframe vendors," Charles King, analyst with Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com. "Given the importance of search in the emerging class of business applications, gaining world class search technology is really important to them."

IDC analyst Sue Feldman said search can be "endlessly useful" in the enterprise, just as database applications have proven to be. "You're adding a kind of fuzzy matching to the enterprise software stack that databases can't do," said Feldman, noting that FAST offers more than simple look up.

"FAST has quite a tool box of capabilities including geo-location and rich media support." She said companies like FAST and competitors such as Autonomy and Exalead are addressing the need of enterprise customers to access transactional, sales, Web and documents in a unified way.

"And with SOX  driving fear and dread, customers are looking for easier ways to find specific information regardless of format," said Feldman.

King notes that all the major enterprise players, including IBM, SAP, Oracle, are bringing greater search capabilities into their core enterprise products and Microsoft could hardly afford to be left behind. Microsoft's Sharepoint has been a bright spot, particular for SMBs  but isn't considered as scalable as other enterprise solutions.

"If you look at the enterprise content management space, there's EMC with Documentum, another is IBM's Information on Demand initiative," said King. "With these and others, there's an underlying sense that information constitutes a discreet and very important business asset that organizations need to take every advantage of. As companies amass terabytes of data, finding access to billions of documents and transactions becomes increasingly critical."

An operating system for the enterprise

Tom Wilde, CEO of search company EveryZing, is a former vice president of marketing for FAST, which he left in 2001. Wilde thinks the FAST acquisition fits with Microsoft's ambition to establish a kind of operating system for the enterprise, much as its OS rules the desktop world. On the consumer side, Wilde thinks Google has already established itself as the Internet's operating system.

"Search is like the weather, it's that pervasive," Wilde told InternetNews.com. "What you're seeing with Microsoft's purchase of FAST is a recognition that it needs an industrial strength search platform for SharePoint to make it a one stop shop for enterprise customers. Search is the best approach to aggregate both structured and unstructured content for discovery."

You won't get any argument on the latter point from Google. "This acquisition reinforces the fact that search is important not only for consumers, but it is also the oxygen of today's business," said a Google spokesperson in an e-mail sent to InternetNews.com.

"We introduced the Google Search Appliance five years ago to offer businesses a solution that is both as powerful and as easy to use as search on Google.com. The consistent demand of businesses for enterprise search solutions continues to validate our efforts," said the spokesperson.

FAST's larger competitor, Autonomy, put a positive spin on the Microsoft deal. In a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com, Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch claimed the deal "… effectively removes the FAST product set from competing in 94 percent of the enterprise search market where the customer needs to run some part of search on non-Microsoft operating systems as most high end customers run more than Microsoft such as UNIX or Linux."

However, with the FAST deal still pending approval, Microsoft's support plans haven't been firmly established. Recent deals show Microsoft is not averse to supporting Linux. Lynch also asserted the deal will help Autonomy's licensing business among firms that don't want to deal with Microsoft.