September 18, 2014

Lucidworks ships Fusion 1.0 - Pretty exciting next gen platform.

OK, I've known about this coming for a while, just didn't know when until this afternoon - so I stayed up late to get the download started after midnight.

Fusion is more than an updated release of Lucidworks Search. It is Solr based, but it's a re-write from top to bottom. And it's not a bare bones search API only a developer can love. Connectors? Check. Security? Check. Analytics? Check. Entity extraction? Check. All included. 

But what it adds is where the real capabilities and contributions are. Machine learning? Check. Admin console? Check. Machine learning? Check. Log analytics? Check. A document pre-processing pipeline? Check. Deep signal processing (think 'automated context processing')? Check. 

Even if you think these new unique capabilities are not your style, then you can buy Solr support and still get licenses for connectors, entity extraction, and a handful of other formerly 'premium' products. Want it all? License the full product at a per-node price I always thought was underpriced. I'm sure you'll be hearing alot more in the coming days and weeks, but go - download - try - and see what it does for your sites. Your developers will love it, your business owners will love it, your users will love it, and I bet even your CFO will love it.  

Full disclosure: I am a former employee of Lucidworks; but I'd be just as excited even if I were not. Go download it for sure and try it on your content. But be sure to check out the  'search as killer app' video on Lucid's home page www.lucidworks.com

s/ Miles

 

 

September 09, 2014

Sometimes you're just wrong! (Maybe).

OK, this one falls into the 'eat your own words' category, so I have to come clean. Well, partly clean. Let me explain.

I was out of town last week, but just before I left I wrote an article asserting that Elasticsearch really isn't 'enterprise' search. The article drew alot of attention and comments from both sides of the argument. I have to say I still think that's the case, but an announcement by Microsoft seems to differ, and end up a net positive for Elasticsearch. Microsoft tells us that Elasticsearch is the platform under the covers of Microsoft's Azure search offering. It looks like you have a couple of options - as long as you're on Azure:

a) You can download and use the open source Elasticsearch platform available on GitHub; or

b) Use Microsoft's managed service 'Facetflow Elasticsearch' which incorporates (some of) the open source code in various places.

Microsoft calls this "a fully-managed real-time search and analytics service" while, according to ZDNet, it is for 'web and mobile application developers looking to incorporate full-text search into their applications'. 

Either way, it's certainly yet another step forward for Elasticsearch, and is a big step forward in visibility for the company. It's not clear what kind of revenue they will receive from the deal - Microsoft being relatively famous for being quite frugal. And after all, smart search folks like Kevin Green of Spantree Technology Group talk about its strengths and liabilities, saying it *is* fast ('wicked fast'); fault-tolerant; distributed and more. But it is not a crawler; a machine learner; a user-facing front end, and it is not secure. 

So I'll agree a partial 'mea culpa' is in order; adding capabilities to an open source project can make it more enterprise ready. But I think the jury may still be out on the rest of my piece. Stay tuned!

August 25, 2014

Is Elasticsearch really enterprise search?

Not too long ago, Gartner released it's the 2014 Magic Quadrant which I’ve written about here and which has generated a lively discussion on the Enterprise Search Engine Professionals group over on LinkedIn.

Much of the discussions I’ve seen about this year's MQ deals with the omission of several platforms that most people think of as 'enterprise search’. Consider that MQ alumni Endeca, Exalead, Vivisimo, Microsoft FAST, and others don’t even appear this year. Over the last few years larger companies acquired most of these players, but in the MQ it's as if they simply ceased to exist.

The name I've heard mentioned besides these previous MQ alumni is Elasticsearch, a relatively new start-up. Elasticsearch, based on Apache Lucene, recently had a huge round of investment by some A-List VCs. What's the deal, Gartner?

Before I share my opinion, I have to reiterate that, until recently, I was an employee of Lucidworks, which many people see as a competitor to Elasticsearch. I believe my opinions are valid here, and I believe I’m known for being vendor-neutral. I think the best search platform for a given environment is a function of the platform and the environment – what data source, security, management and budget apply for any given company or department. “Search engine mismatch’ is a real problem and we’ve written about it for years.

Given that caveat, I believe I’m accurately describing the situation, and I encourage you to leave a comment if you think I've lost my objectivity!

OK, here goes. I don't believe Elasticsearch is in the enterprise search space. For that reason, if for no other, it doesn’t belong on the Gartner Magic Quadrant for search.

You heard it here. It's not that I don't think Elasticsearch isn’t a powerful, cool, and valuable tool. It is all that, and more. As I mentioned, it’s based on Apache Lucene, a fantastic embedded search tool. In fact, it's the same tool Solr (and therefore Lucidworks' commercial products) are based on.  But Lucene by itself is a tool more than a solution for enterprise search.

Let me start by addressing what I think Elasticsearch is great for: search-enabled data visualization. The first time I attended an Elasticsearch meet-up, they were showing the product in conjunction with two other open source projects: Logstash and Kibana. The total effect was great and made for a fantastic demo! I was fully and completely impressed, and saw the value immediately - search driving a visualization tool that was engaging, interactive, and exciting! 

Since then, Elasticsearch has apparently hired the guys who created those two respective open source projects, and has now morphed into a log analytics company - more like Splunk with great presentation capability, and less like traditional enterprise search. Their product is ELK - Elasticsearch Logstash Kibana. You can download all of these from GitHub, by the way.

(Lucidworks has also seen the value of Kibana to enterprise search, and has released their own version of Logstash and Kibana integrated with Solr called SiLK (Solr-Integrated Logstash and Kibana).

Now let me tell you why I do not think of Elasticsearch as an enterprise search solution. First, in my time at Lucid, I'm not aware of any enterprise opportunities that Lucidworks lost to ELK. I could be wrong, and maybe the Elastic guys know of many deals we never saw at Lucid. But with no crawler and other components I consider ‘required’ as part of an enterprise search product, I'm not sure they're interested - yet, at least.

Next, check the title of their home page: "Open Source Distributed Real Time Search". Doesn't scream 'Google Search Appliance replacement', does it? Read Elasticsearch founder Shay Banon on the GSA.

Finally, Wired Magazine has an even more interesting quote: Shay Banon on SharePoint. “We're not doing enterprise search in the traditional sense. We're not going to index SharePoint documents”.

Now, with the growth and the money Elasticsearch has, they may change their tune. But with over $100M in venture capital now, I think their investors are valuing Elasticsearch as a Splunk competitor, and perhaps a NoSQL search product for Hadoop - not a traditional enterprise search engine. 

So the real question is: which space are you in? Enterprise Search with SharePoint and other legacy data sources? Web content and file shares you need a crawler for? Is LDAP or Active Directory security important to you? Well - I won't say 'no way' - but I'd want to see it before I buy.

Do you use Elasticsearch for your enterprise search? Let me hear from you!

 

 

 

August 21, 2014

More on the Gartner MQ: Fact or fiction?

There is a lively discussion going on over in the LinkedIn ‘Enterprise Search Engine Professionals’ group about the recent Gartner Magic Quadrant report on Enterprise Search. Whit Andrews, a Gartner Research VP, has replied that the Gartner MQ is not a 'pay to play'. I confess guilt to have been the one who brought the topic up in these threads, at least, and I certainly thank Whit for clarifying the misunderstanding directly.

That said, two of my colleagues who are true search experts have raised some questions I thought should be addressed.

Charlie Hull of UK-based Flax says he's “unconvinced of the value of the MQ to anyone wanting a comprehensive … view of the options available in the search market'. And Otis Gospodnetić of New York-based Sematext asks "why (would) anyone bother with Gartner's reports. We all know they don't necessarily match the reality". I want to try to address those two very good points.

First, I'm not sure Gartner claims to be a comprehensive overview of the search market. Perhaps there are more thorough lists- my friends and colleagues Avi Rappoport and Steve Arnold both have more complete coverage. Avi, now at Search Technologies, still maintains   

www.searchtools.com with a list that is as much a history of search as a list of vendors. And Steve Arnold has a great deal of free content on his site as well as high quality technology overviews by subscription. Find links to both at arnoldit.com.

Nonetheless, Gartner does have published criterion, and being a paid subscriber is not one of them. His fellow Gartner analyst French Caldwell calls that out on his blog. By the way, I have first-hand experience that Gartner is willing to cut some slack to companies that don't quite meet all of their guidelines for inclusion, and I think that adds credence to the claim that everything.

A more interesting question is one that Otis raises: “why would anyone bother with Gartner's reports”?

To answer that, let me paraphrase a well-known quote from the early days of computers: "No one ever got fired for following Gartner's advice". They are well known for having good if not perfect advice - and I'd suspect that in the fine print, Gartner even acknowledges the fallibility of their recommendations. And all of us know that in real life, you can't select software as complex as an enterprise search platform without a proof of concept in your environment and on your content.

The industry is full of examples where the *best* technology loses pretty consistently to 'pretty good' stuff backed by a major firm/analyst/expert. Otis, I know you're an expert, and I'd take what you say as gospel. A VP at a big corporation who is not familiar with search (or his company's detailed search requirements) may not do so. And any one on that VP's staff who picks a platform based solely on what someone like you or I say probably faces some amount of career risk. That said, I think I speak for Otis and Charlie and others when I say I am glad that a number of folks have listened to our advice and are still fully employed!]

So - in summary, I think we're all right. Whit Andrews and Gartner provide advice that large organizations trust because of the overall methodology of their evaluation. Everyone does know it's not infallible, so a smart company will use the 'trust but verify' approach. And they continue to trust you and I, but more so when Gartner or Forrester or one of the large national consulting companies conforms our recommendation. And of not, we have to provide a compelling reason why something else is better for them. And the longer we're successful with out clients, the more credible we become.

 

 

August 05, 2014

The unspoken "search user contract"

Search usability is a major difference between search that works and search that sucks. If you want a free one-hour usability consultation, let me know.

I recently had lunch with my long time friend and associate Avi Rappoport from Search Technologies. We had a great time exchanging stories about some of the search problems our clients have. She mentioned one customer who she was explaining what best practices to follow when laying out a result list. That brought to mind what I've called the search user contract, which users tacitly expect when they use your search on all of your sites, internally and externally.

If you are responsible for an instance of search running inside a firewall, even if it's outward facing, you have a problem your predecessors of 15 to 20 years ago* didn't have. Back then, most users didn't have experience with search except the one you provided - so they didn't have expectations of what it could be like.

Fast forward to 2014. In addition to your intranet search, virtually everyone in your organization knows, uses, and often loves Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, eBay and others. They know what really great search looks like. They expect you to suggest searches (or even products) on the fly! Search today knows misspelled words and what other products you might like.

But most importantly, almost all of these sites follow the same unspoken user contract:

  • On the result list, the search box goes at the top, either across a wide swath of the browser window, or in a smaller box on the left hand side, near the top.
  • There is more than one search box on the results page.
  • Search results, numbered or not, show a page title and a meaningful summary of the document. Sometimes the summary is just a snippet. Words that cause the document to be returned are sometimes bolded in the summary.
  • Suggestions for the words and phrases you type show up just below the search box (or up in the URL field)
  • Facets, when available, go along the left hand side and/or across the top, just under the search box. Occasionally they can be on the right of the result list.
  • When facets are displayed own the left or right side of the screen, the numbers next to each facet indicate how many results show when you click that facet.
  • Best bets, boosted results, or promoted results show up at the top of the result list.
  • Advertisements or special announcements appear on the right side of the result list.
  • Links to the 'next’ or ‘previous' results page appear at the bottom and possibly at the top of the results.

Now it's time to look your web sites - public facing as well as behind your firewall. Things we often see include:

  • Spelling suggestions in small, dark font very close to the site background color, at the left edge of the content, just above facets. Users don't expect to look there for suggestions, and even if they do look, make the color stand out so users see it** [Don't make the user think]
  • An extra search form on the page; one at the top as 'part of our standard header block'; and one right above the result list to enable drill down. The results you see will different depending on which field to type in. [The visitor is confused: which search button should be pressed to do a 'drill down' search. Again, don't make the user think]
  • Tabs for drilling into different content areas seem to be facets; but some of the tabs ('News") have no results. [Facets should only display if, by clicking on a facet, the user can see more content]
  • As I said at the top, we’ve found poor search user experience is a major reason employees and site visitors report that ‘search sucks’. One of the standard engagements we do is a Search Audit, which includes search usability in addition to a review of user requirement and expectations.  If you want a free consult on your usability, let me know.

 

/s/Miles

 

*Yes, Virginia, there was enterprise search 20 or more years ago. Virtually none of those names still exist, but their technology is still touching you every day. Fulcrum, Verity, Excalibur and others were solving problems for corporations and government agencies; and of course Yahoo was founded in 1994.

**True story, with names omitted to protect the innocent. On a site where I was asked to deliver a search quality audit, ‘spelling suggestions’ was a top requested feature. They actually had spell suggestions, in grey letters in a dark black field with a dark green background, far to the left of the browser window. No one noticed them. You know you are; you’re welcome!