The Olympic Games and US Presidential Elections come around every four years but SharePoint upgrades come on a three year cycle. There are still organizations using SharePoint 2007 and in the process of migrating to SharePoint 2010 and now we have SharePoint 2013 in all its glory.  

Microsoft also seems to be hinting that in future there could be more frequent upgrades. Before long you will probably be able to major in Microsoft Upgrade and Migration Planning at most major universities.

My particular interest is in enterprise search and here I have to congratulate Microsoft on the progress it has made since the fairly terrible search functionality in SharePoint 2007. The company was also smart enough to go out and buy FAST Search and Transfer in 2008, but not quite smart enough about financial due diligence and building a sensible search technology strategy for itself and for SharePoint.

The Technology Story So Far

The immediate result was the arrival of FAST Search Server for SharePoint 2010, abbreviated to FS4SP. This took a lot of the components of FAST ESP 5.3, suitably modified to SharePoint 2010, and offered a substantial enhancement to SharePoint Search 2010 which itself was a significant leap forward from the search offering in SharePoint 2007.

Two issues immediately became obvious. First, many companies were convinced that they now had a licence for FAST ESP 5.3 and had no idea of the real state of affairs. Second, no one in the Microsoft partner community had any idea of how to get the best (or indeed anything at all!) out of FS4SP. My experience says that not that much has changed since launch unless the company has brought in external implementation expertise.

In 2010 Wrox published "Professional Microsoft Search" by Mark Bennett and his colleagues that covered all the Microsoft search products (including FAST ESP 5.3) in 450 pages. It is an excellent book because of the substantial amount of guidance it gives on the skills and management attention needed to get the best out of any search application.

It was not until earlier this year that Microsoft itself published "Working with Microsoft FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint," which runs to 450 pages just on FS4SP. There are so many omissions from this book that it would take me the rest of this column to list them, but the most notable are no references at all to using search logs to manage search performance and a total absence of any indications of the staffing requirements to support the product. It creates the impression that search implementation is a project, when at the minimum it is a program and in reality it is a journey without end. 

The other significant problem is that (unlike the Wrox book) the book does not tell you what FS4SP does not do. A good example is document thumbnails, which out of the box are only supported for Word documents and Powerpoint files. Certainly there are some good third-party solutions (Documill comes to mind) but that misses the point.

Fortunately there are many excellent search implementation companies (Comperio, Findwise, Raytion and Search Technologies for example) that can really make FS4SP sing and dance but that inevitably adds to the implementation cost. Even then, any company running FS4SP probably needs a search support team of at least 3-4 people full time. A look at Sadie van Buren’s invaluable SharePoint benchmarking service shows search way down the list in maturity of implementation.

Planning for 2013

Now comes FAST Search Server for 2013. Why Microsoft retains the FAST branding defeats me, especially as ESP has now gone out of mainstream support. Oracle bought BEA in 2008 but does not still use the brand name!

There are quite a number of enhancements, some of which are going to need careful attention in the upgrade from SP2010 to SP2013. Nicki Borell is in the middle of a good set of blog posts on the changes. Remember that the search integration partners are going to need to get up to speed. It doesn’t matter how much support they get from Microsoft, they need to get hands-on experience from an initial set of customers willing to let them establish good implementation practice. Microsoft might not get round to publishing the book of the product until 2015.

As with all search technologies, it is not a case of making the best use of what SharePoint 2013 offers, but whether these features are of value to users given the content being searched and the use that they will make of the search application. A Ferrari F12berlinetta is a very high performance sports car but where do you put the suitcase for even a weekend away? Maybe you should stick with your Aston Martin DB9.

Even if you are not immediately thinking of a migration to SharePoint 2013, starting work on a search strategy should be a very high priority.

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more of Martin's thoughts on enterprise search? Check out Is There a Future for Enterprise Search?