Microsoft's FAST search to mate with social networking

Search acquisition to boost Microsoft social media technology

Enterprise-level search coming out of Microsoft's takeover of Norwegian company FAST last year will be mated with SharePoint in a number of ways, says Steve Letford, a technical solutions specialist at Microsoft New Zealand.

Speaking at the SharePoint Community conference, New Zealand's first SharePoint user conference, Letford says besides being a booster of user productivity by providing semantically meaningful searches, the technology will be dovetailed into office social networking.

"Social networking is a huge bet for Microsoft and we want to amplify [management of social network postings] with search," he says. Users will look at a series of documents and tag and rate them for value, as is typically done on social networks, and this will be fed into the criteria for future searches. As such, the documents found by most people in the organisation to be of high value will appear at the top of the search list.

Users will do the same when ranking expertise in the organisation: rating the people according to the value of the information they have previously supplied -- perhaps coloured by an impression of the ease with which they communicate.

"So when you do a search of expertise in your organisation you'll get the top people at the top of your relevance list."

In ordinary office productivity work, the FAST search tool will give more meaningful results than an ordinary search engine on unstructured data, because of its ability to recognise the semantics of such elements as a date or an address, Letford says. Its pipeline architecture enables different inquiries to be made concurrently on a stream of documents as they pass down the pipe, meaning multifaceted queries can be executed more efficiently.

Documents retrieved by the search will be able to be further interrogated interactively and the documents and their interrelationships presented in graphical format.

Letford says a 2005 IDC report, "The Hidden Costs of Information Work", analysed time taken and time wasted on typical office tasks such as searching, version control, reformatting documents and entering metadata. Search ranked fourth by time taken and hence by cost.

In an evaluation of wasteful tasks, "searching but not finding" ranked second and was reckoned to cost an enterprise with 1000 information workers $US5m a year.

He dropped hints in his talk that Microsoft's implementation of FAST enterprise search in association with SharePoint might aid some of the other tasks, such as version control, which has been costed at $3m a year for a similar-sized organisation.

But Letford was cautious about revealing too much in advance of next year's formal release.

"I want to give you a good feel of what's going on without giving too much away so I don't get shot," he told the conference audience.

Customers of the enterprise search tool will have to buy a specific licence and purchase a dedicated search server. Enterprise search is not something you install on your PC or laptop, he says.

A third common use for high-end search capabilities, Microsoft predicts, will be in monetising website offerings by guiding users to content for which they will be willing to pay, and bringing up relevant advertising messages.

Letford confirmed, in answer to a question from the audience, that Microsoft's public search-engine, Bing, will evolve to use FAST-style technology.

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