Can Google gain a foothold in the enterprise?

Partnerships, new software bolster the search vendor's appeal to corporate customers

Google's got its eyes on your corporate data, and if its ability to parlay its whip-smart Web search technology into a vast empire of consumer services is any indication, you may be Googling enterprise apps and data sooner than you think.

For several years, Google has been putting the wheels in motion for a serious enterprise play, but the Web-specific nature of its search has limited its reach. That obstacle may have fallen last week as consulting services company BearingPoint announced a partnership to extend the GSA (Google Search Appliance) throughout the enterprise with services, support, customized plug-ins, and security integration.

And it's not only Google's search that has been getting the enterprise treatment. The company is testing a program that allows its Gmail Web-based mail product to act as the back-end service for corporate e-mail domains. In addition, an enterprise version of Google's Desktop Search tool bolsters security and offers control to IT admins.

However, questions still loom about Google's viability as a high-end enterprise player. "[Google has] got the great brand name, but it doesn't have credibility as a provider of enterprise technology," said David Schatsky, senior vice president of research at JupiterResearch.

Schatsky feels the deal with BearingPoint may bring an answer. As an enterprise integrator with a global, cross-industry reach, BearingPoint could give Google some of the enterprise "street cred" that is prerequisite for supplying critical technology infrastructure to Fortune 1000 companies.

"The relationship can close the gap between the core technology and the savvy needed to make it work the enterprise," Schatsky said.

Bringing Google to bear

According to Chris Weitz, managing director at BearingPoint, the new partnership will allow Google customers to use the Search Appliance as the primary search application for the enterprise.

Since it launched the Google Search Appliance in February 2002, Google has been continually expanding the volume and types of content it can crawl. Initially the GSA indexed only Web-based content, giving corporations a taste of what Google could do behind the firewall but not reaching enough content to be an enterprise solution.

After a series of updates, the GSA now reaches into relational databases, corporate security systems, content management apps, portals, more than 220 file formats, and Lotus Domino. BearingPoint will expand this reach considerably with software adapters that can link Google's appliance to a slew of enterprise applications, such as Documentum and FileNet, Oracle databases, and Seibel. Also, BearingPoint is offering security extensions to GSA that allow for authentication, record-level security, and custom integration.

"People want to use the Google front end for as much as they can. We want to plug in these adapters to complete that reach and scope to allow access to these areas in the enterprise that are difficult to reach," Weitz said.

Google's goal for the GSA is to make "every bit of information in your company accessible to a single search box," said Dave Girouard, Google's enterprise general manager. Most companies that purchase Google's search appliance can have it up and running in the same week, Girouard said. However, he acknowledged that those kinds of deployments aren't truly enterprisewide; the appliance is only "touching the tip of the iceberg." Services, software, and technical expertise from BearingPoint can help the GSA dig deeper, he said.

Can this power couple attract the big fish? Weitz said BearingPoint is currently working with several Fortune 100 companies to further extend and customize the GSA. What's more, Google's message of simplicity shoots to the heart of a major pain point in enterprise search, which is notorious for being difficult to deploy and use, prohibitively expensive, and lackluster in its results.

Irving Tyler, CIO of IMS Health, a $1.8 billion health care information provider, said he likes Google's approach to getting at unstructured data, although his company doesn't currently use the GSA. IMS Health uses Vignette for knowledge management and search, but that approach means all the data is stored on a server. "It's like a data warehouse," Tyler said.

A Google-style search takes a burden off of the user, Tyler said. With Vignette you can organize data in a structured way with folder structures, but the Google search engine is powerful enough that you don't need to know the navigation approach to find information. It also eliminates the need to store the information locally on a hard drive before moving it to the knowledge management system.

"With Google I don't have to do that," Tyler said. "And more importantly it provides context."

An apple is not an orange

But even if Google's philosophy of simplicity wins hearts and minds inside the corporate campus, the underlying technological challenges of Internet and enterprise search are poles apart, raising the question of whether a BearingPoint-Google team can make the GSA fly for complex deployments.

"Search in an enterprise is a lot different than on the public Internet," said Matthew Brown, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Enterprise search frequently targets very specific problems that require specific integration and customization. I don't think Google can address those [issues], and it's questionable whether BearingPoint can get them there."

Brown says making search work well in the enterprise often is a matter of continually fine-tuning an extensible platform to work with myriad systems, repositories, business logic, and various metadata attributes. In this case, relevancy is less of an out-of-the-box feature than a constant work in progress. Although Google has opened the APIs on many of its Web services, it has been guarded with its secret sauce of relevancy, called PageRank.

"They think of their relevancy algorithm as their crown jewel but don't show the inner workings or let customers do value-added services around the search," such as triggering business rules to affect searches, Brown said.

For these reasons, Brown feels that Google will remain strong in the SMB market, but the top end of the search arena might be out of its reach. "When it gets down to brass tacks and enterprises are looking at features/functions, I think people will see that Google doesn't deliver what other enterprise search vendors can," he said.

Despite the challenges facing Google, there can be little doubt as to the company's prowess at delivering well-designed, practical services on the Internet. Still, according to Ali Riaz, president of enterprise search vendor Fast Search & Transfer, that may not be enough.

"The transition from Web search to enterprise search is very difficult. [You are] going from a service to a highly flexible software product," Riaz said.

Fast got is start in Web search with a technology called AlltheWeb. Although the company applied pieces of that Web search technology in its ESP (Enterprise Search Platform), it still rebuilt much of it from scratch.

"In the corporation you need precision, accuracy, relevancy," Riaz said. "The challenge is harder."

Ephraim Schwartz contributed to this report.