The Many Faces of Microsoft Search

The Ignite Conference last week was exhilarating. There is a torrent of new, great content, with 950 sessions including 635 full breakouts – and all of it is freely available on Channel 9 (or will be by the time you read this). I’m still working my way through the 103 sessions I marked as “must watch”….might take awhile.

Azure Stack, bringing cloud capabilities to your on-prem environment in an exciting next-gen hybrid platform, is my personal favorite – outside of SharePoint and Search, that is. I loved the “Director’s Cut” session on Azure Service Fabric Actors.

In my previous post I went over my biggest hits at Ignite: the Office Graph, SharePoint 2016, and next-gen Hybrid Search.  It was also clear that SharePoint 2013 search is going strong. In this article, I’ll go a bit wider to the news about other Microsoft Search products.

News for every part of Microsoft Search

There are many different faces to Microsoft search. Between Build and Ignite, new stuff was unveiled on every single one of them in the span of 10 days.  No wonder I’m still feeling giddy.

Even outside of the Office365 universe, there was a LOT of news around search:

  • Bing unveiled new APIs, Solutions, and developers at Build, including a lot that are powered by Azure Machine Learning, such as new speech and vision APIs. Bing Maps also got some love.   It is now SO easy to use Bing Maps for visualization that I expect new apps to crop up everywhere.  At Build, Ricky Brunritt’s session showed no-code integrations including Bing Maps with Power BI, and then went into cross platform apps using the Apache Cordova tools in Visual Studio 2015.  Five minutes to a great looking, location-aware, app that runs on any device.  Amazing!
  • Windows Desktop Search (WDS) in Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016 looks great to me. Windows 8 was a big step up for WDS, but it lacked a search field, leaving many users desperately swiping, flipping and scrolling through documents, apps and emails.  Well, the search field is back in Windows 10!  You can simple type and find what you’re looking for. The goodness of app search, touch, etc from Win8 is still there, and the Bing SmartSearch features from 8.1 are too.  There are a number of other improvements I won’t go into here, the net is that this group has been busy and seems to be working effectively with  Bing and other groups.
  • Cortana (Microsoft’s personal assistant) is all about search too.  It uses Bing and WDS but adds some special sauce, in particular around Windows 10 for phones. One of the great demos at Build and Ignite was Windows 10 running on a Raspberry Pi – they were giving out Raspberry Pis at Ignite.  Of course I fired it up after I got home last weekend and went straight to Cortana and search – which worked well even on this tiny device!

    Speaking of Raspberry Pi – Andrew Connell did an incredible session showing Office 365 Apps running on a Raspberry Pi , so I tried that next.  I am not a big “maker” and generally prefer my raspberry pie to be edible (with whipped cream), but I could get this working in an hour and it was a lot of fun.

  • Azure Search, which is built on ElasticSearch, came out of preview back on March 6. This already seems long ago!  There was great material around Azure Search at both Build and Ignite, and an unveiling of mobile applications that leverage Azure Search.  If you are building a web or mobile application for the cloud today, you should definitely look at Azure Search, the Ignite session on building applications with Azure Search is a good place to start.
  • SQL 2016 was announced at Ignite. The headliner new features are integration with R (from Microsoft’s acquisition of Revolution Analytics), encryption of data at motion as well as at rest, and hybrid ‘stretch’ capabilities that allow you to leverage Azure transparently.  I noticed some new search features too, nothing was said explicitly at the conference but I can’t wait to get my hands on the preview this summer.  The next two items are also indications of the fruits of SQL’s ‘semantic search’ project trickling into the market.
  • Full Text search is showing up in Azure SQL (finally!).  This was announced at Build, I think it’s a boon for those building structured data applications (since even structured data is rife with text blobs).
  • Power BI Q&A (a natural language search capability) also derives from SQL’s ‘semantic search’ project.  I’m stretching this one a bit because there was nothing new around this particular feature at Build or Ignite – and because it’s part of Office 365.  But there was a LOT around PowerBI: new reporting dashboards based on PowerBI, an Office 365 content pack for PowerBI, SCCM integrated with PowerBI, and the separation of Power BI from SharePoint into a standalone service. Q&A is one of the most popular features, so I’ll count it – and maintain my statement that every ‘face of search’ had new stuff unveiled at Build and Ignite.

Why are there so many Microsoft search products?

I often get questions about why there are so many variants and flavors of search technology at Microsoft. It can be confusing, for sure;  I devoted a whole chapter of my “Professional Microsoft Search” book to this. The reality is that search is not one thing.   The wide range of needs and environments naturally result in a wide range of search technologies, even if you share some code and algorithms across them. This shows up in the Microsoft stack because Microsoft covers such broad turf.  No other vendor covers the desktop AND mobile devices AND web search AND databases AND cloud platforms AND the enterprise. You end up with at least 6 variants to cover these 6 territories  – and Microsoft covers all this with  5 different code bases.  (At last count, IBM had 10 different search code bases in their products covering ‘only’ database and enterprise alone).

Given the natural forces that tend to splinter search technology, it’s remarkable how well Microsoft has been able to keep their enterprise search cohesive and thriving. The team and technology from the FAST is now behind SharePoint, Exchange, many features of Office365, and the Office Graph – a remarkable accomplishment.

It is true that Microsoft lacks coherence here – not only are there different search products but the APIs are different. However, it really is possible to work across them. I do a session called “Developing search-driven applications with SharePoint, the Office Graph, and Azure Search” which covers all three and it works because there are more similarities than differences. I also see signs that groups within Microsoft are actually working together on search.

So…call it incoherent, or call it semi-coordinated – your choice. Any way you look at it, there’s a lot of powerful technology with Microsoft search, and there’s exciting news around every face of search – all of which rolled out at Build and Ignite.

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