I have spent the last week in Las Vegas attending the FAST Forward 09 conference. About a year ago the Norvegian company FAST Search & Transfer was acquired by Microsoft and like me customers all over the world wonder what would happen. Some thought it was great to have a huge company with its R&D resources to take the platform forward while others like me feared a technology transition which would include cancelling support for other operating systems and integration with nothing but Microsoft technology.
It was very clear that the Microsoft Marketing department had a lot to say about the conference and what messages that were to be conveyed. Somewhere behind all that you could still see some of the old FAST mentality but it was really toned down. To me the conference was about convincing existing customers that MS is committed to Enterprise Search and to give Sharepoint customers some idea of what Enterprise Search is all about.
It is clear that the product line is diversifying in a common Microsoft strategy:
Solutions for Internet Business
Solutions for Business Productivity
FAST Search for Sharepoint won’t be available until Office Wave 14 (incl Sharepoint) will be released so in the meantime there will be a product called FAST ESP for Sharepoint that can be used today and will have a license migration path towards FAST Search for Sharepoint. That product will have product license of aroudn 25 000 USD and then additional Client Access License (CAL) will follow in a standrad MS manner.
So what does all of this means for us who like to see FAST ESP continue as an enterprise component in a heterogenous environment? Well, MS has commited to 10 years of support for current customers, I guess in a gesture towards those who are worried. Over and over again I heard representatives talking about how important those high-end installations on other operating systems are. The same message appeared when it came to connectors and integration with Enterprise Content Management systems like EMC Documentum. Still, most if not all demos was connected to Sharepoint and/or other MS-specific technologies.
The technical roadmap means that the past year has been devoted in rewriting their next generation search platform from Java to .Net. The first product that will be released is the Content Integration Studio (CIS) which consist of Visual Studio (I guess earlier in Eclipse) component and a server-side execution engine. This will only be available on Windows since it is deeply connected to the .Net-environment. It looks like a promising product with support for flows instead of linear pipeline to handle the processing of information before it is handed of to the index engine. CIS therefore sits in-front of FAST ESP and a combination of actions in flow and in old pipelines can be executed. Information from CIS is written to the ESP which then creates the index and also processes queries to it.
What I think we can expect is that new innovation is focused on creating a modular architecture where CIS is the first one. Features in ESP will the be gradually reengineered in a .Net-environment and thus creating a common search platform some years into the future. It will likely mean that we will still see one or two upgrades to the core ESP as we know it today to enable it to function together with the new components. Content Fusion will most likely be the next module that will extend ESP but on a .Net-architecture.
These will initially be offered in both a IIS and a Tomcat flavour and possibly others if there is demand. They will intitially integrated with ESP and Unity and thus opening up for a new approach of developing a search experience on top of them.
I general I don’t like the Microsoft approach of insisting of owning the whole technology stack by themselves and refusing to invest in other standards-based projects. Instead of developing their own AJAX libraries they could have used ExtJS or even Google Web Toolkit. While it is not open source MS argues that it is a very Permissive licence from MS that has many of the same qualities. A good thing is that MS was comitted to make sure that this framework works on all major browsers including FireFox, Safari and Chrome. It is interoperable with JQuery.
In summary I think it is kind of a mixed experience. The new features being developed are truly needed to make FAST keep being one of the most advanced search engines available. I think many of the features look really promising and I can’t wait to get my hands on then. On the other hand it is clear that things are going proprietary (FAST ESP had a lot of open source in it), it is being aligned in a Microsoft stack and thus gradually minimizing options. That includes how new technologies are being implemented (MS-ones instead of open source), what operating systems it will run on and how the support for developing presenation logics look like. It means I have to have people how know both Java and .Net, both Flash and Silverlight (possibly JavaFx) and both ExtJS/GWT and MS AJAX/Aerogel.
We are deeply invested in the EMC Documentum Platform and would of course like to continue use ESP as a way to add advanced capabilities and performance to our architecture. However, I think I will over time get sick and tired on Microsoft sales people trying to convince me to use Sharepoint instead of Documentum. For anybody who know how both platform work it is almost a joke but I will most likely have to keep explaining and explaining. I just hope that we can have decent connector developed for Documentum.
Too read more you can go to the FAST Forward Blog which has many interviews, look at videos at the Microsoft Press Room and check out the chatter on ffc09 tagged tweets on Twitter. An finally here is what CMS Watch has to say about it.