SharePoint Server for Search 101

In the Microsoft Office System product family, the Office client products like Word and PowerPoint seem to get most of the press and user attention. That’s not unexpected, given that the Office clients have been around for a very long time, are deployed on more than 400 million desktops, and are familiar to almost everyone who’s ever used a Windows computer. However, the SharePoint product family is a key part of the product line from Microsoft’s perspective because it provides a number of important features to Microsoft’s overall collaboration product line. With the release of the 2007 Office system, Microsoft has added three new versions of SharePoint to its arsenal: SharePoint Server 2007, Windows SharePoint Services 3.0, and SharePoint Server 2007 for Search, a new version with a clumsy name that nevertheless clearly indicates what it’s for.

SharePoint Server 2007 for Search, which I’ll call SharePoint Search from now on, is a slimmed-down version of SharePoint Server that provides search functionality for intranets. The simplest way to think of SharePoint Search is as a customized search engine; SharePoint Search isn’t a replacement for SharePoint’s team site or document workspace functionality; instead, it offers more search functionality than Windows SharePoint Services and somewhat less than the enterprise search functionality in SharePoint Server 2007.

There are actually two versions of SharePoint Search. Both use the same content indexing engine, which is the same as the one in the full version of SharePoint. The standard edition allows you to index up to 500,000 documents (a hard limit), while the enterprise edition can index up to 50 million documents (Microsoft’s recommended maximum; there’s no hard limit). Both versions depend on a single index, while the full SharePoint Server product allows you to use multiple indices. You can do an in-place upgrade from standard to enterprise, or from either version of SharePoint Search to the full SharePoint Server product.

What does the indexer actually index? A lot, actually. Out of the box, SharePoint Search can crawl and search SharePoint sites, file shares, Microsoft Exchange public folders, and Lotus Notes/Domino databases. It does this using an extensible plug-in mechanism that allows you to add indexers for new content types. Microsoft ships the product with a good set of search filters, covering Office documents, PDF files, and other common file types. Third parties offer a variety of additional filters for things like AutoCAD drawings and Microsoft Project files. It’s important to note that SharePoint Search cannot index line-of-business application data unless it can be exported to a file type for which you have an indexing plugin; LOB application integration is a feature of the full-blown SharePoint Server product.

The search process works pretty much like you’d expect it to: you type in search terms and get back a set of links representing results found in the index. Compared to previous versions of SharePoint, the SharePoint Search product and its siblings offer big improvements for results:

-Results are automatically security trimmed; that is, you’ll only see results for items to which you have access. This greatly reduces information leakage by concealing confidential documents from users who don’t have permission to see them.

--Search results can now be saved as RSS feeds for use in applications like Outlook, Internet Explorer, NewsGator, or BlogLines. This is very useful for monitoring the results of a search over time. You can also register for alerts when new results become available, using the default SharePoint alerting mechanism.

--Search results automatically include “Did you mean…” clauses. If you’ve used Google or Windows Live Search, you’re familiar with their ability to suggest other search terms that might be relevant; SharePoint Search offers the same functionality.

--SharePoint Search can present what Microsoft calls “best bets” results; the relevance ranking engine in SharePoint attempts to figure out the results that are most likely to be relevant to your query and presents them accordingly. As part of that ranking process, you can remove results that you determine to be irrelevant, which helps improve the relevancy ranking accordingly.

On the administrative side, it’s fair to point out that SharePoint Search requires you to spend some time thinking about how you want search to work on your network. Microsoft’s documentation recommends identifying a search team, then putting that team to work identifying search terms, figuring out the scope of items that should be included in the search collections, and deploying SharePoint’s search technology to search it. A short article like this can’t capture everything that you need to know about SharePoint Server for Search. However, Microsoft has a number of more detailed guides on their web site. In particular, the Planning and Architecture Guide available from http://technet2.microsoft.com/Office/en-us/library/32a18803-52d2-4967-ab9d-0e199c9bf0041033.mspx?mfr=true is a good place to review what the product can do and how to deploy it.

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