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Insight into an information tsunami

This article appears in the issue March 2012 (100 Companies) [Vol 21, Issue 3]
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Seven years ago, a child was swept from her home in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In December 2011, she was reunited with her parents. Serendipity, not a search technology, delivered this result. Unable to remember details of her past, the teenager was identified by birthmarks and a mole.

In most organizations, information tsunamis rage each day and locating information often bears striking similarities to the story of Meri Yulanda in Indonesia. Chance and elbow grease often deliver the needed information. Technology often gets in the way of making connections, of solving tough, real-life findability problems.

Countless organizations rely on Microsoft SharePoint. There are millions of users and almost as many blog posts, technical articles and consultants to solve tsunami-scale information problems. SharePoint began life as a content management system. In 2001, fresh from repositioning its content management solution and its acquisition of NCompass Labs, SharePoint Portal Server became available. The foundation of today's SharePoint solution was in place. SharePoint 2010 offers an incredible range of features and functions. Those include support for public or private websites, community and collaboration services, content management, search and retrieval, business intelligence and "composites," which I admit I do not fully understand.

What makes SharePoint such a popular solution? Why does the system spawn so many third-party fixes, enhancements and add-ins? How expensive is the system when fully deployed? I explored those and other questions with the founder of BA Insight, a successful Microsoft certified vendor squarely focused on the exploding SharePoint market. BA Insight is in the knowledge management business, and its core product is Longitude Search. A licensee struggling to deliver information access to SharePoint users installs Longitude and uses that system to add functionality to SharePoint and other enterprise systems.

Guy Mounier, the founder of BA Insight, explained to me that BA Insight's technology "unifies access" to document management, customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and social content systems. A number of firms are making similar assertions, including Attivio, Exalead, Mindbreeze, ISYS Search Software, PolySpot and SurfRay, along with thousands of other companies and independent consultants, according to Microsoft's Pinpoint service, which helps SharePoint licensees locate the applications and services they need.

Pinpointing information faster

BA Insight and its Longitude service grew out of Mounier's firsthand experience with enterprise systems and Microsoft SharePoint. Longitude Search evolved from a large search project Mounier completed for a Fortune 100 energy company. He explained, "The data integration challenges we experienced were not unique to me and my team. It was evident to us seven years ago and even more so today, that enterprise search technology would be the technology foundation for more cost-effective, unified information access platforms. This is the situation today and is due to the fact that search platforms have  significantly matured and can be connected to disparate data sources ranging from entirely unstructured content to highly structured data."

Longitude adds some useful features to the SharePoint system. When I get a results set from BA Insight's system, I can preview a document without opening another application such as Adobe Acrobat, which can be sluggish. The goal of BA Insight's approach is to reduce the time required for a SharePoint user to pinpoint the information needed to complete a work task.

Like a number of other companies, BA Insight uses the phrase "search-based applications" (SBAs) to describe the approach the company takes. The idea is that employees have to find information in order to do work in a modern organization. Search, therefore, is not a sideline activity. Search sits at the center of an organization's enterprise systems. The marketers have seized upon two buzzwords to describe the value of the search-based application approach: agility and adaptability.

Mounier explained, "Agility is the rapid deployment and immediate value one gets out of the box. Agility turns out to be the key differentiator with other types of information access applications, such as business intelligence (BI), which traditionally require a larger upfront investment and extensive user training to realize measurable return on investment. Adaptability in the context of SBAs characterizes the technology's ability to automatically tailor to the industry, the department or the function a user is part of, without having, for instance, to predefine an industry or department specific taxonomy. As a contrast to SBAs, a BI cube or BI report is essentially set in stone, expensive to change and maintain. Similarly, a conventional enterprise search tool does not learn from users' interactions, but often relies entirely on a predefined taxonomy that is even more expensive to change and maintain."

The explanation evokes a number of other buzzwords, and I am not sure if procurement teams know what a "taxonomy" and a "BI cube" are. When I expressed skepticism at those definitions, Mounier replied, "Our technology and our SBAs learn and improve based upon every user interaction and dynamically present the most relevant information context, straddling both structured and unstructured data, and driving beyond the capabilities of conventional business intelligence and search."

Stark proof of challenges

My interest was piqued. The scale of the SharePoint challenge is daunting. Consultants, certified Microsoft vendors and Microsoft engineers are working overtime to make SharePoint more useful to its licensees and users. Keeping up with the flood of information about SharePoint is a full-time job. I rely on Alltop.com's SharePoint headline aggregation service at http://sharepoint.alltop.com and the blog SharePointSemantics.com. However, neither service does an adequate job of keeping pace with Microsoft's own SharePoint information flow. Essential SharePoint information is scattered across Microsoft's own site, the MSDN "network" at http://msdn.microsoft.com, Microsoft's SharePoint team blog, and information services operated by Microsoft experts and dozens of other Microsoft efforts. The flood of Microsoft's own SharePoint information is stark proof of the challenges SharePoint presents to licensees, developers, consultants and, most important, users.

SBAs are the future

Mounier is an expert in search and all things SharePoint. When asked if other vendors are offering search-based applications as well, he replied, "Of course, but we believe BA Insight pioneered the creation of SBAs on top of the SharePoint 2007 platform, and more recently Fast Search 2010 for SharePoint. Our fastest growing search-based application is called Legal Search for SharePoint and Fast, which provides the attorney with a 360-degree client matter view, securely surfacing documents, e-mails, billing system information and external references such as LexisNexis or West KM in a unified manner. Endeca and Exalead are true pioneers of search-based applications. SBAs are the future, and the market has room for many more innovators. Endeca's current market focus is on e-commerce and agile business intelligence applications. These are areas we are not targeting."

After exploring the BA Insight system, the key point of differentiation to me is BA Insight's leveraging the best-in-class search infrastructure provided by SharePoint and Fast Search, which is now called FS4SP, shorthand for Fast Search for SharePoint. BA Insight does not compete directly with any enterprise search vendors. The net result is that BA Insight can focus on innovating on top of a mature enterprise search platform without having to worry about plumbing or platform extensions such as workflows. It appears that BA Insight's solution can enhance a SharePoint workflow in the context of the information returned. BA Insight incorporates the collaboration features of SharePoint.

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