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7 posts from July 2011

July 30, 2011

Java 7: Five days is just not enough time

You may have heard that the recent release of Java 7 has what sounds to me like some serious problems which are discussed on the Lucid Imagination blog. The most telling line i found there -

"These problems were detected only 5 days before the official Java 7 release,
so Oracle had no time to fix those bugs, affecting also many more

Granted, this is from Uwe Schindler as quoted on Lucid's site - not directly from Oracle. But I have to wonder about any product that is released with known serious flaws like this when they ONLY had five days' notice. I've seen software halted hours before its intended release to investigate a potentially serious bug; did Oracle have to meet revenue at end of quarter, and 'damn the torpedoes'?  

I know Oracle is not (the old) Hewlett Packard which had a legendary commitment to quality. When bugs were found in the earliest HP 3000, Dave Packard made his sales rep buy them back from customers - even from those customers who were happy with their purchase. The reason: The system did not perform as advertised. If every one of your users is going to be impacted, some in very subtle ways that may produce incorrect results - wouldn't you agree that five days is enough time to stop the presses?

Tell me what you think...



July 27, 2011

Great 'site documentation' toolkit for SharePoint

As in much of the IT world, when you build a new system or farm, you need to document everything for posterity - and to save potentially hours of effort when things stop working in the future. SharePoint 2010 is no different.

Doc_kit I just learned of a tool that will document your SharePoint farm(s) for you, greatly easing the problem most of us will face at one point or another. From the folks at Acceleratio Ltd based in Croatia but with  US sales and support, the folks who created the Documentation Toolkit for SharePoint understand both the problem - and their audience. Pricing is available per farm ($299 US) or, for consulting firms that maintain multiple farms for their users, for $499.

There is a 30 day free evaluation/download; and using the claim code 'summer2011' you can get 50% of the purchase price through the end of August.

Normally we would have posted this on SearchComponentsOnline.com, another site we run; but it's pretty new, and not as many people know to look there for free and low cost tools for those interested in enterprise search.


July 15, 2011

Musings on FAST and Microsoft

I started the draft for this post a week ago yesterday morning, but between interruptions and such, had not finished it by late afternoon, so I put it away with the intent to finish it later. At 530PM or so, I got a text message from a very good friend of mine who happens to work for FAST back east, telling me about the layoff. When we spoke a few minutes later, I heard that just about all the former FAST folks we knew at Microsoft – sales folks, partner reps, and systems engineers, East Coast, Midwest, and west, were gone. I didn’t confirm it, but I’d imagine some of the same sorts of folks in Europe are in the same boat.  I know some other folks really well, and messaged them to give them my support and offer to do whatever I could to help them. Out of a dozen good friends we’ve worked with, only one seems to have his job today.

Layoffs are vicious on the people and on the company; but honestly this event doesn’t really change the future I had imagined for FAST and Microsoft. It accelerates the timeline of course; but no matter how great these people are, sales folks are not the heart of the product. And Microsoft still has good sales guys who can fill in and solve problems for customers.

A few weeks back, one of the FAST folks I know told me how different it was selling FAST as part of a Microsoft sales team. Apparently, the Microsoft lead sets the agenda, decided what products to present, and was basically in charge of the sale. That makes business sense, of course; but the former FAST sales guy said selling with Microsoft was not like the old FAST days – taking on the world, with a product that was great for so many demanding customers, if not the price/performance leader for many kinds of ‘average’ search applications. FAST Search for SharePoint is going into markets that need modern features and capabilities, but Microsoft just wasn’t going into accounts that needed heavy duty, industrial strength search.

So, is this layoff an indication that Microsoft has decided to write off its investment in FAST Search and Transfer?

I’d have to say the answer is ‘no way’. I’m guessing that Microsoft saw that MOSS 2007 was not industrial strength search; customers were unhappy, and Microsoft were seeing companies like FAST, Google, Exalead, Attivio and Lucid Imagination selling successfully on the SharePoint 2007 platform. Ironically, I don’t think they saw much of Autonomy, which has such a tight laser-like focus on eDiscovery.

You can say what you will about Microsoft, but when their customers start to complain, Microsoft tends to get moving. They are not always successful out of the gate, but they stick with it. And Microsoft went shopping.

FAST had some real stand-out capabilities. The first one we usually talk to customers about is predictable and massive scalability. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a data problem too big for FAST ESP. It may take a bunch of servers, but FAST could tell you just how many you needed for a given data size and query volume. That is important to Microsoft, because their vision for SharePoint 2010 and beyond is as the content management repository of choice for some really large companies with really big data.

Another useful feature is a visible and well-defined indexing pipeline which makes it really easy to fix up really nasty data. If you needed to augment metadata with call-outs to external sources, or just needed to do some custom markup, the pipeline made it easy. In many technologies – I’m thinking here of the Old Verity K2 approach – you had to process “bulk insert files” after the crawler was done, but before the index was built. Sometimes that was very messy and hard to debug.

The FAST pipeline was never very well documented – but there were examples, and simple pipeline stages were pretty easy to write. We’ve even documented the use of a pipeline stage written as a Windows BAT file – although we don’t recommend it for production environments because of performance issues! A powerful pipeline architecture is a great way to consolidate social content with enterprise search.

FAST also had a powerful filtering capability in FQL and a structure that really enables personalization (see the console, below). Facets, tagging, filtering, and relevance were all built deep into the technology; and while it may not be very easy to implement, it was great to behold when a project was complete. All of this really facilitates the inclusion of ‘social elements with search.

The next capability that we really liked was not unique to FAST – in fact, I think it was first implemented by Endeca: interactive consoles for both IT staff and for the business line owner. No longer did you need a developer to tweak the relevancy – the business line owner could do it interactively. Add a new data source? An IT person logs into the console, point and click, and bingo. You did have to plan in advance for some of this; but it was possible to do without scripts and hacks. In SharePoint, IT and business management is console driven; so FAST was a win here as well.

One final thing Microsoft got from FAST is engineers who understand the challenges of search over really big data. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Microsoft located its search technology research center in Norway. No doubt these folks are working on all aspects of search and usability, from the desktop all the way to Bing. And what these folks create will migrate into Microsoft’s key platform: SharePoint.

When Microsoft acquired FAST, they got all of these bits of technology and more: a vision of future search, including the capability to manage both the indexing process and the search process with powerful graphical tools. The delivery of these capabilities comes in Content Transformation Services (CTS) and the Interaction Management Studio (IMS). Together, these provide even finer control for IT/developers and business-line owners to manage search using graphic, interactive tools – think of Visio. Add a new data source? Drag and drop it into the system. Federate content from the web? Drop in the federation tool, set a few parameters and it’s done. It was darned near a web part already!

As of the acquisition, SharePoint 2010 was well into development, so today Microsoft currently offers three products: Microsoft Search Server – the MOSS 2007 replacement; FAST ESP (packaged as FSIS and FSIA); and FAST Search for SharePoint. The technology in this hybrid offers a clue for the direction Microsoft is going with the FAST technology. In fact, the next SharePoint may have only ‘basic search’ and what we’ll recognize as FAST.

So while it’s sad to see good folks lose their jobs; and while it may look like a series of poor decisions form the outside, I expect Microsoft is going to benefit from all that money spent up in Norway a few years ago. FAST, the huge, complex, expensive, and quirky search engine may not ever be seen again. That’s not where the mass market is, the mass market is where Microsoft makes its bread and butter.

But search to Microsoft will be SharePoint; they will meet the needs to a majority of the companies that need to find content; and they will push the envelope in search for the masses. There will also be ‘search’ companies that will serve the needs of companies that have demanding search needs. Lucene/Solr is very well positioned for that. But there are others. And Microsoft will take the middle masses, the sweet spot that needs flexible, pretty darned good search that can be managed easily for diverse corporate content repositories.

July 12, 2011

A really good book by Lou Rosenfeld

Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your Customers is out, and while I've only just started reading it, it's a keeper.

Lou, a long-time pro in search analytics, relates not only the problem, but the solutions as well.

Early in the book, there is a telling anecdote: major relevancy problems can be caused by the omission of a single configuration file; or even a single badly set option.

When you roll out a major new system, have two different sets of eyes check everything!



Inopportune time for a page not found: Microsoft

There has been an active discussion on the LinkedIn Enterprise Search Professionals Group since the news last week that Microsoft has laid off a number of sales and system engineering folks, at least in North America. Many are wondering if this marks the end of the FAST products, or whether Microsoft is writing off their $1.2B investment to acquire FAST a few years back.

I think the answer to both of these is 'no way'. Much of the FAST technology found its way into FAST Search for SharePoint, a hybrid between Microsoft search and FAST ESP. Microsoft have released two exciting new capabilities in FSIS (CTS and IMS), and they continue to run the Microsoft Research Center in Norway, where many of the FAST engineers are active participants.

All of that said, this morning I was surfing the interweb for some Microsoft proficiency tests, so I went to Google and searched

microsoft enterprise search proficiency

The first organic result looked promising:

But when I click on the link, I got this on my browser:

Not_found Oops!

Now we've all had bad links on our web sites, and even occasional outages - but given the concern some people have about the layoffs of FAST sales reps, this is a bit of an inopportune time, yes?

All of my browsers produced the error, and using the old telnet trick to port 80 or the WGET utility showed the page really did exist with no obvious re-directs or errors. So I drafted our CTO Mark Bennett to help, and after some analysis, he found the problem - in the scripts on the page: bad scripting is the culprit.

Yep - with apologies to the Buggles, JavaScript killed the Microsoft page. Disabling scripts in the browser lets the link work just fine. It just shows you that, even with all the resources in the world, lack of attention to detail will get you!

I'll be in LA at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference tomorrow; it should be interesting!




July 07, 2011

Webinar: Customizing the SharePoint Advanced Search Page

Sorry for the late notice - I just discovered it myself today.

Josh Noble, SurfRay consultant and author of Pro SharePoint 2010 Search, will give a webinar on Customizing the Advance Search Page on July 8 at 11AM Pacific, 2PM Eastern. If you're in Europe, it's worth staying up for!

Josh gave a related talk at SharePoint Saturday Sacramento a couple of weeks ago, and he really had some great tips and techniques. Register for the webinar now.




July 06, 2011

Breaking news: FAST folks laid off from Microsoft

Just learned that most of the FAST people we work with here in California and across the country have been laid off by Microsoft, apparently effective immediately. This is the team that was responsible for selling the FAST ESP products - FSIS and FSIA - as well as working with the Microsoft sales teams on Fast Search for SharePoint (FS4SP). Funny, I was just drafting a blog post today on 'the future of FAST' and I'm glad I hadn't finished; I never would have guessed this at all.

Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference next week; be interesting to see what they have to say. Stay tuned..