King of Internet search Google recently made a splash with its latest enterprise search appliances, encroaching on the territory populated by companies like Autonomy, FAST and Endeca. But Google isn’t the only “upstart” advancing into enterprise search. Exalead, based in France, hopes to make a big mark in enterprise search as well as in consumer Web search. I talked with Francois Bourdoncle, CEO of Exalead, last week about his search services and plans for the U.S. market.
Bourdoncle worked on the original Alta Vista search engine while at Digital Equipment, and then went back to France in 1998 to the university research life, where his group designed a new search technology—clustering, indexing and semantic mapping. In 2000, Bourdoncle spun out the technology into Exalead, raising $3 million euros. “We started with an AltaVista killer, then a Google killer, but then said no and focused on an enterprise product,” Bourdoncle said. But six years later, Exalead has added Web and desktop search as part of its unified search technology platform.
To date Exalead has 50 employees, more than 50 customers, mainly in Europe, and generated $3 million euros in revenue during the first quarter, Bourdoncle said. AOL France is a marquee customer, using Exalead to power Web search for French subscribers for the last four years. In the U.S., the company is just getting started. “We have no significant customers yet, but a variety of larger consulting companies are looking at it,” he said. “Our goal is to be the most affordable solution in every market segment.”
Bourdoncle believes that Exalead’s advantage over “old school” enterprise search vendors like Automony and FAST is ease of set up and integration. He claims that his search engine doesn’t require the expense of professional service engagements to install and integrate, and applies the same user interface across Web, desktop, workgroup, enterprise and datacenter editions.
Regarding Google, Bourdoncle said, “Google is simplistic. It’s like inventing the wheel--everything has to be circular, so you have to supplement it with services like Bearing Point to be useful. We can have the features you expect from higher-end platforms, but package and deploy them in hours, more similar to Google.”
According to Bourdoncle, Exalead’s 64-bit architecture has some advantages over Google’s back end. “Instead of hundreds of thousands of servers, we can have one-tenth the number, which allows us to operate with only a handful of people,” he said. Google does have huge and growing capital expense, but that hasn’t hampered the growth of the company’s market share of share price. Exalead could only hope to have that kind of problem.
I asked Bourdoncle what he considered to be Exalead’s secret sauce. “We are not only targeting keyword search, we are helping people browse and navigate through results. We call it “search by serendipity.” When you initiate a search, you don’t always know the proper words, you don’t see what is missing and may use the wrong term to make a query. We discover documents of interest and help find the proper way to formulate a query.”
Exalead Web search for "Windows Vista"
Compared to Google, Exalead’s Web search interface has much richer results and navigation, but so far crawls only 4 billion pages (8 billion by July, according to the company). It does entity extraction and allows sorting by file types and other variables.
Bourdoncle’s ambition is to crack the top five in Web search, which is now led by Google, followed by Yahoo, Microsoft, Time Warner and Ask. Bourdoncle also said that Exalead hasn’t chosen an ad serving partner for its Web search site, but would soon.
In terms of computer science, he called Exalead search a new type of information technology. “Oracle with the SQL database invented a way to deal with structured data. The new search is about structuring data so it is a human to machine exchange, a more flat XML model with taxonomies and searchable text fields. There are typed fields, such as text, numerical, enumerated and taxonomies. All of this is completely read-write. Google is not read-write. We reflect exactly what is on a disk or mail system. If it is removed from the drive it is removed from the index, in synch in almost real time and scalable to billions of documents.”
I also asked Bourdoncle about Project Quaero, a development effort in Europe to create a multimedia search engine. It made new last year when French president Jacques Chirac yesterday pledged to participate in funding a European search engine to rival Google and Yahoo, citing the threat of Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism.
According to Bourdoncle, Quaero is not a state-financed search engine, brand or Web site. “It’s just a code name for an R&D project, which is currently not funded or approved by French and German government or by the EU [European Union], which will have to approve it as well. The is no product in the making—it’s a bunch of companies and Exalead is both a technology provider and service operator participating in the project.
It’s actually ten different projects in a larger program of shared R&D efforts.
Exalead.com is an early version of such a multimedia search engine, Bourdoncle said. “The funding is for long term efforts. It’s not free [money]. It take a lot of effort to get the money, and in fact costs as much just to get the money. But you get the synergy and lots of energy in bringing together [public and private] partners in a project.”
“It’s not like we are newborns. The road to market is very peculiar. We have chosen a different path than Google. We chose the enterprise market, but it’s a marathon. We are funded by Qualis, an international holding company, and they have a long term vision for their companies—even if it takes 10 or 20 years."