Can IBM be a Google for businesses?

Firm quietly working on data storage software designed to help companies find business documents scattered across their networks.

IBM is building software it hopes will make it the Google of corporate-search technology.

Big Blue has been quietly working on data storage software designed to greatly improve the ability of companies to find business documents scattered across their networks, Janet Perna, the general manager of IBM's information management group, told CNET

The new software, along with other information-retrieval products IBM already has, underscores the company's shift out of low-cost hardware, notably PCs, and into higher-margin software and services. The move is meant to accelerate IBM's transition from a relational database company into a provider of a full range of information management software, Perna said.


What's new:
Big Blue has been quietly working on data storage software designed to greatly improve the ability of companies to find business documents scattered across their networks.

Bottom line:
IBM's heavy investments in search signal the company's plans to move beyond its database roots into information management in general, as well as a companywide shift into software and services.

More stories on IBM and search

"We've grown from our roots in relational databases," Perna said. "What's required is an information infrastructure to not only store and manage but also search and access all sorts of information."

The new database-related software will let corporate customers store documents in XML, or Extensible Markup Language, format, which will greatly speed up text-related queries, she said. An early, or alpha, version of the tool is being tested with about 30 customers and is expected to be completed in the second half of next year. IBM has not named the product or decided how to package it.

Relational databases are a mainstay for corporations, storing records and transactional data. But about 85 percent of business information is stored in so-called unstructured data sources such as word processing files, XML documents and images, making it hard to locate, Perna said.

Through acquisitions and massive research investments in search, IBM is quietly becoming a leader in search technologies. The goal with search is to make querying business networks as common and easy as using Google or Yahoo for Web search.

That's an idea that appeals to Victor Martinez, manager of data administration and information access services at Kawasaki Motors. Having seen the success of Web search engines, Martinez thinks that search tools could give end users at his company a much better handle on information, notably business reports.

"Almost everyone is familiar with some search function like Google or Yahoo. So my vision is we can expose business information in a similar mode," he said. "And we'll have a winner because there won't be any training."

Too often, company employees learn about business reports through word of mouth, or they commission a report that may already be written and stored on a company server, he said. Searching through a repository of existing reports would greatly speed up the process and potentially eliminate some redundancy.

As it expands its purview, IBM will likely butt heads with Microsoft and Oracle, as well as several smaller companies that specialize in aspects of corporate search, such as text retrieval, analysts said.

Oracle further detailed on Wednesday the fruits of several years of development in content management. Oracle Files 10g, which is meant to push the company beyond its strengths in the database market, is designed to help corporate customers store, manage and eventually search for information stored as text.

Microsoft is active in search as well and has helped popularize the idea of searching on PCs. It is developing a new file system, called WinFS, meant to greatly ease the process of digging through data stored in different programs. It also sells content management software and is developing a Web search engine for its MSN Web portal to compete with Google and Yahoo.

Meanwhile, several smaller specialized firms already have text storage and retrieval software that lets business users search through company networks. These corporate-search companies include Verity, Autonomy, Fast Search & Transfer and several start-ups, according to analysts.

Searching corporate networks can be significantly more complex than searching the Web, even though the volume of information can be much less.

Unlike on the Web, business information can be stored in many locations and in various formats, such as spreadsheets, PDFs, Web

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