Convergence and collisions in Enterprise Search

At the end of next month I’ll be at Enterprise Search Europe (I’m on the programme committee and help with the open source track) and the opening keynote this year is from Dale Roberts, author of the book Decision Sourcing. Dale will be talking about how Social, Big Data, Analytics and Enterprise Search are on a collision course and business leaders ignore these four themes at their peril.

So I wondered if we could see how in practical terms one might build systems based on these four themes. There are technical and logistical challenges of course (not least convincing someone to pay for the effort) but it’s worth exploring nonetheless.

Social in a business context can mean many things: social media is inherently noisy (and as far as I can see mostly cats) but when social tools are used within a business they can be a great way to encourage collaboration. We ourselves have added social features to search applications – user tagging of search results for example, to improve relevance for future searches and to help with de-duplication. Much has been made of the idea of finding not just relevant documents, but the subject matter experts that may have written them, or just other people in your organisation who are interested in the same subject. From a technical point of view none of this is particularly hard – you just have to add these social signals to your index and surface them in some intuitive way – but getting a high enough percentage of users to contribute to shared discussions and participate in tagging can be difficult.

Big Data is an overused term – but in a business context people usually apply it to very large collections of log files or other data showing how your customers are interacting with your business. A lot of search engine experts will tell you that Big Data isn’t always that ‘big’ – we’ve been dealing with collections of hundreds of millions or even billions of indexed items for many years now, the trick is scaling your solution appropriately (not just in technical terms, but in an economic way, as linearly as possible). If you’ve got a few million items, I’m sorry but you haven’t got Big Data, you’ve just got some data.

I’ve always been unsure of the benefits of search Analytics but I’m beginning to change my mind, having seen a some very impressive demos recently. Search engines have always counted things; the clever bit is allowing for queries that can surface unusual or interesting information, and using modern visualisation techniques to show this. Knowing the most popular search term may not be as important as spotting an unexpected one.

So we’ve indexed our data including tags, personnel records, internal chatrooms; put them all onto a elastically scalable platform and built some intuitive and useful interfaces to search and analyze our data. I’m pretty sure you could do all this with the open source technologies we have today (including Scrapy, Apache Lucene/Solr, Elasticsearch, Apache Hadoop, Redis, Logstash, Kibana, JQuery, Dropwizard, Python and Java). This isn’t the whole story though: you’d need a cross-disciplinary team within your organisation with the ability to gather user requirements and drive adoption, a suitable budget for prototyping, development and ongoing support and refinements to the system and a vision encompassing the benefits that it would bring your business. Not an inconsiderable challenge!

What questions should we be able to ask the system? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

See you in April! If you’d like a 20% discount on registration use the code HULL20. We’ll also be running an evening Meetup on Tuesday 29th April open to both conference attendees and others.

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