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May 30, 2008updated 19 Aug 2016 10:07am

Sinequa says Microsoft buying Fast is a boon

I caught up with French enterprise search start-up Sinequa recently in London, where it opened an office in December. Over a rather fine breakfast at the popular Villandry Restaurant, I quizzed the firm's new UK country manager Colin Hadden about

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I caught up with French enterprise search start-up Sinequa recently in London, where it opened an office in December. Over a rather fine breakfast at the popular Villandry Restaurant, I quizzed the firm’s new UK country manager Colin Hadden about life, the universe and everything.

Hadden said Microsoft’s acquisition of Norwegian enterprise search player Fast can only be good for its own business, because it means one fewer enterprise search specialists to compete with: “It’s one less European competitor, and it also helps to vindicate this market,” he said.

He noted that Microsoft’s acquisition of Fast – the Redmond-based firm paid $1.2bn for Fast in January this year – will help to generate additional column inches in the press about enterprise search, and is also as he put it, “an admission [by Microsoft] that they couldn’t build this themselves – that enterprise search is not an easy thing to build.”

But won’t Microsoft quickly move to make the Fast technology part of its SharePoint platform, thereby helping to commoditise the search market, just as it intends to commoditise the virtualization market by making it part of Windows Server?

“My belief is that if Microsoft could package Fast, make it as quick to implement as people require, and offer it as a free part of SharePoint Server, that would be quite destructive for us,” said Hadden. “But there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in that statement. The fact they are buying Fast also shows they realize that enterprise search is hard to do well.”

Sinequa came out of an academic project in France in the early Nineties, and even today most of its customers are based in its native market. But it says it’s growing fast (no pun intended), prompting it to open its UK office in London last December.

The firm says it added over 40 new customers last year. It says it’s profitable, multiplied in size by five times between 2004 and 2007, and had a growth rate of over 80% during the last two years… [click Continue Reading below for more on this entry]…

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Hadden: opted for eggs on toast at our breakfast meeting. I went for a bacon sarnie.It clearly competes with several other enterprise search players, large and small. As well as Fast, it also competes with the likes of Endeca and Google Enterprise with its search appliance. But perhaps its stiffest competition at least on paper would appear to be the UK’s Autonomy, with its sales of over $105m in its latest quarter.

So was it wise to launch its first real international expansion in the UK, Autonomy’s home turf, as opposed to elsewhere? “The UK is considered to be the gold standard for enterprise search and if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere,” said Hadden. “We needed to prove that the product can scale beyond its core market [France].”

He also said that the firm tends to compete with the likes of Endeca and Fast, and “hardly ever” comes up against Autonomy. This may be because Sinequa is really selling technology aimed at doing enterprise search, and only enterprise search. Autonomy, while it may have used enterprise search in its marketing to good effect and does have enterprise search technologies in its portfolio, really addresses a far broader market that includes content management, business process management and even information risk management.

So far Sinequa has only a handful of customers rolling out its technology in the UK, having only entered the market in December of last year. As well as selling directly the firm is building up relationships with systems integrators and other technology partners – Microsoft was a strong partner until it bought Fast.

Systems integrator partners today include Atos Origin, Capgemini, LogicaCMG, and Accenture; OEM partners include Instranet and SGT; and technology partners include EMC, Oracle, SAP and Sun Microsystems.

Hadden said the company would probably expand to Spain next, and leave the US until it’s a little more established. “We probably need to invest $10m to start a US expansion plan properly,” he said.

As for its technology, Sinequa says it uses a combination of patented semantic algorithms alongside statistical, structured and syntax analyses to help users “navigate, retrieve and organise the most relevant information or topic of interest in a consistent and reliable fashion.”

It says it can address the full range of information, be it in document, conceptual or application form, linking these with details of individuals or teams with associated expert knowledge.

According to Hadden, one of the firm’s key differentiators from the competition is speed of implementation. “We say ‘give us some of your data’, and we’ll start to show you results in one or two days. We don’t take companies on a seven or eight-week voyage of discovery. That’s hugely disruptive to the larger players.”

The technology uses statistical, structured (i.e. analyzing metadata), semantic and linguistic techniques to search company information and return the information that users are looking for. It can search structured (Oracle, DB2, SQL Server etc) and unstructured data. In the unstructured world it offers 28 adapters to content management repositories such as Open Text, EMC Documentum eRoom and Hummingbird.

Results can be offered up in its own web-based front end or they can be integrated right into the likes of SharePoint, Open Text and more.

But what about that other elephant in the room, Google Enterprise? It’s one of Google’s fastest-growing businesses, plonking a search appliance on corporate networks that gives users fast, Google-like search of most enterprise information. “The discipline of enterprise search is different from the discipline of web search,” said Hadden, “and the content in the enterprise is not designed to be found, while on the Web, content is designed to be found. Plus the security requirements are different in the enterprise than on the Web.”

“Fundamentally in business, users are typically looking for the answer,” Hadden added, “whereas on the Web people are usually looking for an answer.”

The company has only two staff in the UK today, and Hadden said it will probably only have around half a dozen by the end of the year. That doesn’t sound like particularly ambitious growth plans, I suggest. “Absolutely,” Hadden said, “we’ve been profitable for 18 quarters and the plan is not to kind of burn it bright for a few quarters and see what happens. We’re serious about building a sustainable business.”

Hadden said the firm will launch version 4 of the technology, code-named Helium, in around September.

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