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Analysis

IBM enters free search tools market
Roger Whitehead By: Roger Whitehead, Associate Analyst - Collaboration, Bloor Research
Published: 21st December 2006
Copyright Bloor Research © 2006
Logo for Bloor Research

With the launch on 13 December 2006 of OmniFind Yahoo! Edition (OYE), IBM has made a highly public move against rivals like Google and Microsoft.

As the name suggests, the new product stems from a partnership between IBM and Yahoo!. IBM supplies the search engine, based on the open-source Apache Lucene software, and Yahoo! lends its user interface and Web search services.

IBM's Unstructured Information Management Architecture (UIMA) framework provides the underlying processing pipeline from Lucene but is not exposed for use by developers or OEMs. (See IBM posts UIMA as a standard for more on this architecture). Bundled in are some configuration and administration tools.

The result is a simple-to-use—and free—product that can index and search up to half a million documents on an intranet, including specified external Web pages. The 500,000-page limit is a licensing, rather than a performance, matter. User organisations can licitly run multiple copies of the software, each on a different server. Searching would remain per server, though, not across servers.

OmniFind Yahoo! Edition can also search the entire public Web via Yahoo!. The software uses an adapted version of the familiar Yahoo! interface for all searches. Administrators can customise the interface, as this screen grab shows. Integration with Web sites is enabled either through built-in options or by using the OmniFind API, which is based on REST (Representational State Transfer) norms.

Anyone can download the software, from http://omnifind.ibm.yahoo.com. There are installers for Microsoft Windows XP, Windows 2003 Server, and for Red Hat and SUSE Linux. Installation under Windows was easy and quick, demanding only a current version of Sun's Java Runtime Environment on the host machine. (OYE installs JRE if it's not present.) There also needs to be a browser, either Internet Explorer 6 or Mozilla Firefox. IE7 will be supported before long, IBM says.

Yes, it's for the enterprise

This ease of access and installation will probably lead many people to view the product as desktop search software, competing with the free offerings from Google, Microsoft and, indeed, Yahoo!. IBM insists its new product is enterprise—that is, multi-user—software but in doing so may find itself swimming against the tide of public perception.

I think that is the right positioning. In the Bloor report, Enterprise-wide Search, I defined enterprise search software as being able to search in three zones—desktop computers, internal servers and public Web sites. OmniFind Yahoo! Edition definitely meets that criterion.

The minimum hardware specified for OYE is a server with two processors, running at a minimum of 3GHz, 2GB of RAM and two 250GB mirrored hard drives, with at least 80Gb free. Your average desktop machine is not that well favoured. This product will run on personal computers but the continuous spidering it carries out will drag performance down.

One certainly finds in OYE some of the tools typical of organisation-wide software, such as the ability to create synonym lists, put featured links on results pages, and tune relevance rankings. It will search over 200 document types, in any of 30 or more languages. There is optional product support by telephone from IBM, at an annual cost of $1,999 for each server.

OmniFind Yahoo! Edition does, though, lack some features and abilities. For instance, the query interface, while tuneable, offers only what one gets on the basic versions of public search engines like Yahoo!, Google and MSN. It does not even offer the advanced search options found on Yahoo!'s site. (A pre-launch presentation did show that, interestingly.)

Another lack is the ability to save searches or a user's search history. Access to ready-made synonym lists would be helpful, too, such as for specific industries. Also, unlike IBM's larger models of OmniFind, this version does only keyword searching, not the semantic search and information integration they can do. Combining search results with those from larger versions of OmniFind is not presently possible but IBM is working on the matter.

Strategy and competition

Marc Andrews is the Program Director of Strategy and Evangelism in IBM's Information Management Division. He says that, in making this link with Yahoo!, IBM is not imperilling any of its relations with other search software vendors. For example, the larger OmniFind products will continue to work with the Google, MSN and X1 desktop search products. Nonetheless, as Andrews admits, OmniFind Yahoo! Edition is being positioned as an alternative to Google's search appliances. This is classical computer industry ‘coopetition', in other words.

The Google search appliance nearest in capacity to OYE is the GB-1001 model. This also will index 500,000 documents but it costs $30,000. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, this is also the cost of the minimal move up the OmniFind ladder.)

Even if a user organisation had to buy a separate server and operating system licence to run the OmniFind software, it would still make a large financial saving in comparison. In reality, that organisation is more likely to run OYE on an existing file or intranet server. OmniFind Yahoo! Edition would need its own server only if nearing its maximum licensed capacity.

Some commentators are pointing to the Google appliances' ‘plug and play’ abilities as a differentiator, saying internal support costs should be included in any comparison. This is fair enough in principle but, from what I have seen, installing and maintaining the IBM software should use up little of an administrator's time.

Andrews suggests that potential users view OYE as “an on-ramp to broader Information on Demand services, not just text search.” (Information on Demand is the tag line under which most of IBM's information management products have been marketed since February 2006.) Linking and integrating with line-of-business software and services is the eventual objective here, he feels.

In Andrews' eyes, this launch is a move, pre-emptive in some cases, against Microsoft, Oracle and SAP. These companies all of have ambitions in this broader world of information management. Autonomy and FAST will be taking notice, too.

The Bloor view

OmniFind Yahoo! Edition is an interesting departure for IBM, which is not known for giving things away. I expect Yahoo! is only too glad to get IBM's help in fighting Google and IBM will not mind the publicity this will give its enterprise search products. As a free free-text searcher, it has much to commend it—or will have once IBM and Yahoo! build more features into it. I know IBM is hoping that third-party developers will start producing interesting add-ons and variants using the Lucene APIs.

IBM's portrayal of this product as a set of trainer wheels for its larger and more complex enterprise products does not really wash at the moment. There are no migration tools available to let user organisations progress from this lightweight, racing edition of OmniFind. They would be unable to carry over the indexes and user interfaces, for example, and would have to start afresh.

Marc Andrews says that upgrading tools will be available some time next year. Their lack suggests haste on IBM's part to get this product to market. For his part, Eckart Walther, Vice President, Product Management at Yahoo!, believes one should “ship early and iterate, quickly”, so he's happy with the pace.

That caveat apart, I feel this is a bold move by IBM to capture public attention. It currently sells the larger versions of its OmniFind family mainly into ‘Big Blue’ enterprises and could do with greater awareness of its offerings. This launch guarantees it.

The product itself is at a formative stage, so it is early to judge how it stands up to similar, paid-for offerings but there's the rub—you have to pay for them. I can think of only one near competitor that is free, and that is Google Desktop for Enterprise. As its name suggests, this can search only desktop computers and the public Web. It needs to link to a—decidedly unfree—Google Appliance to be able search intranets.

OYE is potentially a market-shaping product. It will give Yahoo! a much-needed boost against Google and it will give IBM much-needed publicity outside its existing customers for its impressive OmniFind range of information-handling products.

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Published by: IT Analysis Communications Ltd.
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