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It’s In Here Somewhere

Desktop-search tools are helping employees find information and companies find savings.

The idea of search as a separate activity (that is, product) is fast giving way to a more integrated approach. Last October, IBM announced that it was teaming with Google to link its WebSphere Information Integrator OmniFind Edition with Google technology so that employees have access to powerful search functionality from within a WebSphere portal. A similar deal integrated the Google Desktop for Enterprise tool with IBM Lotus Notes so that E-mail messages could be searched quickly.

Microsoft is also aiming for seamless search-application integration. The enterprise version of its Windows Desktop Search product, introduced last November, further integrates the product’s search presence into Windows and Office. Searches from the Windows XP toolbar, for example, now default to Windows Desktop Search rather than Windows’s slow and clumsy internal search function. Additionally, searches made in Outlook’s MSN Toolbar now appear within the application’s window rather than popping up in a separate box.

With so many partnerships promising to combine better search capabilities with existing applications, companies may wonder if they need to budget a separate line item for desktop-search tools. Experts say that depends on the enterprise, the applications it uses, and how soon it wants to embrace the capability. While desktop search will eventually be incorporated into a number of applications and operating systems, that integration will take place over several years. Companies should ask their key suppliers when and if they plan to offer new search capabilities, and then decide whether it makes sense to buy dedicated search products today.

Searching for Trouble

While desktop search’s inherent productivity benefits and marketing momentum would seem to promise impending ubiquity, security experts warn that the technology is not without its dangers. Perhaps the biggest risk is the way new search tools allow workers to stumble upon data that management would prefer to keep hidden. “Right now, for a lot of enterprises, the sheer difficulty in finding certain kinds of sensitive information provides a form of security,” says Whit Andrews, a research vice president of the High Performance Workplace Group at Gartner Inc. “Desktop search changes that.”

To address this problem, both Microsoft and Google recently added beefed-up security features to the enterprise versions of their desktop-search products. Unlike the consumer versions that workers have been surreptitiously installing on their office PCs, the enterprise editions allow managers to decide exactly what files get indexed and searched. “This allows companies to enforce usage policies consistent with their security standards,” says Matthew Glotzbach, Google’s senior product manager for Google Enterprise.

And then there’s the matter of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. Businesses can run afoul of Sarbox if they allow workers to bring in their own unauthorized desktop-search tools, or if in-house enterprise search tools aren’t implemented with adequate consideration for security. “In a post-Sarbox world, you have a responsibility to make sure that across your entire network — from the individual PC level all the way up to your big applications — you have an enforceable security policy in place for all of your information,” warns Josh Jacobs, president of Pasadena, Calif.-based X1.

Another potential problem is desktop-search quality. There’s a reason why businesses have spent piles of money on expensive business-intelligence and content-management systems — for all their complexity they do provide a high level of accuracy. “One- or two-word search queries do a really lousy job of pulling back enterprise content, because there’s little or no context around what the person is looking for,” says Forrester Research Inc. senior analyst Matthew Brown. As a result, some of desktop search’s perceived productivity benefits often evaporate as users burn away precious hours chasing down certain types of information that could be supplied much faster by trained researchers.

But for Liberty’s Vanderpool, desktop search promises a very real bottom-line benefit, one he has calculated to the dollar. “With X1, we project that our support-call volume will drop by 10 percent and we’ll reduce support times by 30 percent, resulting in a savings of $263,995 a year,” he says. “Savings is the answer we’re searching for.”

John Edwards is a technology writer based in Gilbert, Arizona.

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