Analysts highlight challenges of Microsoft’s FAST acquisition

At least one analyst has said customers will face risks as Microsoft tries to integrate its SharePoint content management software with the search technology offered by Oslo-based Fast Search & Transfer, following the £620m offer that Microsoft made for the company yesterday.

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At least one analyst has said customers will face risks as Microsoft tries to integrate its SharePoint content management software with the search technology offered by Fast Search & Transfer, following the £620m offer that Microsoft made for the company yesterday.

Tying together the two product lines "will be a challenge", independent search analyst Stephen Arnold wrote today in a blog posting in which he also predicted more consolidation among the 50 or so companies now competing in the enterprise search market. He said the engineers at Microsoft and FAST were up to the integration challenge, but he added: "The question will be, 'How long will the meshing take?' “

And rival Isys was quick to raise questions about the planned acquisition, claiming in a statement that the combination of SharePoint and FAST's software would create "the potential for real integration headaches" for customers.

Nevertheless, Microsoft hit back, saying that buying FAST would make it the only vendor that could offer a unified enterprise search platform capable of scaling to billions of documents.

During a conference call after Microsoft announced its intentions to acquire FAST, Jeff Raikes, president at Microsoft's Business Division, declined to comment in detail about the company's product integration plans.

Raikes was undaunted by FAST's financial struggles, saying that corporations are drowning in information overload and clamouring for search technologies such as the ones offered by FAST.

He contended that the combination of the two vendors would give Microsoft a leg up on its enterprise search rivals. "Most customers are recognising that they don't want their search to be fragmented across their organisation," he said. "They want to choose a search strategy and products from one vendor."

Currently, corporate users have to "choose between a high-end focused search [platform] or a broader infrastructure technology," Raikes continued. He said that by marrying FAST's products with SharePoint, "we are clearly the leader in end-to-end search in the corporation."

FAST has about 2,000 customers, according to Arnold's blog posting. The Norwegian company reported $162m (£82m) in revenue during 2006, but its revenues and stock price collapsed last year, forcing FAST to lay off one-fifth of its employees and slash unsuccessful product lines in order to regain profitability.

John Lervik, chief executive at FAST, said the restructuring refocused the company "on its search platform, which fits very well with Microsoft's strategy". FAST's board of directors unanimously recommended that shareholders accept the buyout deal, which is expected to be completed in this year's second quarter.

"I find it fascinating that you can get last night's football scores in five seconds, yet it can take five hours to track down last year's business plan," he said. "We believe enterprise search will be for workers tomorrow what Internet search is for consumers today."

FAST competes with specialized search vendors such as Autonomy and Isys Search Software, as well as with the likes of Google.