Desktop Search Tools Gaining Popularity

By Drew Robb

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Whether or not "talk is cheap," (as the expression goes) storing it certainly is. And that has resulted in mushrooming storage costs.

According to IDC, organizations spent $14.2 billion on external disk storage systems last year. While this is only a five percent increase in dollars spent, falling prices mean it represents a 63% increase in the amount of capacity sold.

And then, of course, there is the fact of bigger drives. 250GB drives are becoming common on PCs, Hitachi and Fujitsu have introduced 100GB laptop drives, and LaCie sells a one terabyte external PC drive for less than $1 per gigabyte.

For many users, then, the problem is not so much storing data but how to find it. This has led many companies to install enterprise search software such as Autonomy Corporation's IDOL Server, Convera Corporation's RetrievalWare or Verity, Inc.'s K2.

But such products may not be enough. Even in organizations that store files centrally, the growing use of laptops and home computers means that many files still reside outside the enterprise collection.

Just one LaCie drive, for example, could hold one-tenth of the Library of Congress book collection. Yet the Library of Congress employed a permanent staff of 4,120 last year to manage its resources and make them readily available.

Short of asking HR for a few thousand staff, how should you cope with the burgeoning laptop and desktop file collections? The answer is to install a desktop search tool.

While Windows has a search function built into Windows Explorer, this is woefully inadequate. But over the last year, a wide range of desktop search tools have hit the market, making it easier to locate relevant information.

These tools breakdown into three broad categories, based on their provenance:

  • Operating system vendors: In April, Apple released its latest OS, OSX Tiger, which includes a desktop search engine called, aptly, Tiger. Desktop search will also be part of the Longhorn version of Windows when Microsoft releases it in late 2006.
  • Commercial Search Vendors: Copernic Technologies has a free desktop search tool utilizing many of the features of its enterprise products. dtSearch Corp., Enfish Software and ISYS Search Software also have desktop search, but in the $100- to $200-per-user price range.
  • Web Search Vendors: Ask Jeeves, Google, MSN, Yahoo and others all have browser toolbars for desktop search.
  • Comparing the Options

    Desktop search is a high interest area due to its usefulness, but most of the data available has been from the standpoint of individual users.

    For an enterprise, the UW E-Business Institute (UWEBI), at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted a study comparing a dozen of the more popular desktop tools. Rather than looking at it from the viewpoint of the individual, the report looked at it from what IT manager needs to know, said Shawn Helwig, a researcher and consultant for the UWEBI.

    The UWEBI tested each of the desktop engines and ranked them on a 0-5 scale. The overall winner was Copernic, which ranked No.1 in three of the six categories tested, tied for second in another, and third in a fifth category.

    That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that it is the best tool for a particular company to install.

    For one thing, the features vary on each tool, and it might not search the types of files you need. Top-ranked Copernic, for example, indexes Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird email files, but not IBM Lotus Notes.

    Another factor to consider is that there are enterprise versions of desktop search tools starting to come out which may better suit your needs. Google, for example, released an enterprise version of its desktop tool in mid-May. Alternatively, you may want to consider Copernic off-shoot Coveo's enterprise search tool.

    Enterprise Concerns

    Unless you can completely lock down everyone's workstation, home PC and laptop, users will start installing desktop search tools. They are just too convenient to avoid. So, you should be prepared either with policies regarding their use or an enterprise strategy for deployment.

    "You should evaluate the enterprise versions first before opening the door for the consumer desktop search downloads," advises Helwig. "I don't want users installing Google desktop search and searching drives they shouldn't be."

    One of the main concerns is controlling who has access to what data.

    "You can use the MSN tool bar to search your own local resources without running into too much trouble," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft. "But it is not suitable for use in a corporate setting."

    He also points out that MSN lacks other enterprise features including setting group policies, coordinating indexes of multiple users, controlling access to files, or managing updates.

    Helwig notes that only the Google tool at this time has the ability to lock down access to the network drive, as well as allowing separate profiles for multiple users who use the same computer on different shifts.

    One other concern is security. Depending on how the engine is configured, it may capture and index files such as log-in pages on the intranet or internet, or other pages with confidential information. For example, if a user accesses his salary information using the HR employee self help system, or goes on line to check their bank account balance, that could then show up in the search engine.

    Looking to Longhorn

    While desktop search engines are currently a hot item, this may not last for long. Many feel this should be a part of the operating system. Microsoft clearly agrees since it includes this function as part of Windows Explorer.

    Because its first attempt was a relatively poor tool, the door opened for other vendors to move in.

    Microsoft has since said that Longhorn will include greatly improved search functionality. Originally that was supposed to be a part of the Windows File System (WFS), but the new file system has been delayed, so what exactly the search functions will be remains to be seen.

    Rosoff said it may be based on the work the MSN search team is producing.

    In the meantime, Microsoft advises enterprises to use Sharepoint, rather than the MSN desktop tool. How that will play out once Longhorn is released, however is still uncertain.

    "The official Microsoft line on enterprise search is to use the Sharepoint portal which indexes all the resources on the network," said Rosoff. "The question is how is Sharepoint going to interact with desktop search and how are they going to keep the indexes synchronized."