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.

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