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Microsoft's FAST Strategy Shift

Microsoft last year picked up best-of-breed search technology with its acquisition of Norwegian search specialist Fast Search & Transfer ASA (FAST). Since then, users have been keen to find out precisely what Microsoft plans to do with FAST's search know-how.

Last June, the SharePoint team unveiled four new Web Parts it said would permit developers to quickly embed FAST's search capabilities in SharePoint applications. Microsoft's FAST strategy took still another turn last month, when it announced several revisions to its FAST road map, starting with the immediate availability of FAST ESP for SharePoint, a fast track option that gives customers the option of purchasing FAST's search technology today, ahead of its productization (in the Office 14 timeframe) as part of SharePoint Server.

In addition, Microsoft last announced FAST Search for SharePoint, a new offering -- slated to ship with Office 14 -- that will mark the official marriage of ESP and SharePoint Server. On top of that, Redmond announced FAST Search for Internet Business, an offering designed to power search-driven Web sites. FAST ESP buyers also get a "defined licensing path" for another new deliverable, to FAST Search for SharePoint when it becomes available.

Notwithstanding FAST's troubles -- and prior to its acquisition by Microsoft the Norwegian company had had plenty of trouble, including management and accounting scandals -- few dispute that it was the proprietor of estimable search expertise. With its new SharePoint-centered FAST strategy, analysts say, Microsoft plans to recast FAST's high-end search know-how as an end user-friendly play.

"Offering FAST as an element of the SharePoint platform will attract a significant proportion of enterprises that seek search, especially for the increasingly popular SharePoint, from a reliably viable and large vendor," wrote Whit Andrews, a vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner Inc., in a research note. "Microsoft wants to capture any search business oriented toward employee productivity or other 'ordinary' search applications."

One rub, of course, is that Microsoft already has a search product: its SharePoint-centered Search Server Express. That product isn't going to go away, analysts say, although its positioning will change.

"[Search Server Express] is offered for free to capture the attention of workers developing low-volume, limited-value projects. Microsoft will incorporate the FAST technology into the search products elsewhere in the Office family as of its next...release date," Andrews said. "For now, Microsoft sells a more independent product, FAST ESP for SharePoint, which it will transform into the FAST Search for SharePoint product when the latter becomes available. Greater scale and functional flexibility are key elements of the FAST product."

Neither the FAST acquisition nor Microsoft's roadmap tweaking will threaten search champion Google, Andrews predicted, although Redmond could make things uncomfortable for other search players. "Microsoft's product plan confronts but will not defeat Google's stable of extremely successful search products," Andrews said. "Other vendors emphasize specific applications, and this announcement will push them to redouble their efforts either in that direction or in other directions, such as alternative delivery models."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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