Right information at the right time

By Denise Wergeland
January 29, 2007

The world-famous search engine company FAST Search & Transfer originated in the information technology environment at NTNU. The Norwegian newcomer became so interesting to the market that Google and Yahoo established their own development centres in Trondheim.

Illustrasjonsbilde/FOTO

Today, FAST tailors information access systems for enterprises and is once again holding the leading position in its field. The innovation centre iAd is a constellation between FAST, two Norwegian enterprises and different research environments. The goal is to develop the best search technology in the world. Not just for the Internet, but also in interaction with mobile phones and TV, and for the branch FAST emphasizes the most: enterprise search.

The technological skills around FAST Search & Transfer stem from the Department of Computer and Information Science at NTNU in Trondheim. Professor Arne Halaas at NTNU is considered one of the most important people behind FAST’s technology. As early as 1981, he began focusing on searching and today he is an expert in search engines. Arne Halaas has a reputation for being good at attracting gifted students and for creating links between students, research and industry. Several students have taken their doctoral degrees with professors Arne Halaas and Tor Ramstad as supervisors. John M. Lervik, today CEO of FAST, was one of them. He was also one of the first employees at FAST.

FAST’s Egg of Columbus
In the beginning, FAST developed search technology for public use on the Internet, just like Google and Yahoo. However, FAST sold its successful search engine alltheweb.com to Yahoo and began pursuing new ideas. Now, the company has directed its attention towards the corporate market. In this field, FAST is probably the largest service provider in the world thanks to the close connection to research environments and FAST’s ability to act when the time was right.

Illustrasjonsbilde/FOTO Need new search technology
The demand for search services in the corporate market is growing rapidly. Estimates indicate that the average enterprise doubles the amount of produced data over a year. Retrieving and integrating data from a large number of internal and external sources present more and more of a challenge for enterprises.

Efficient searches save time
Corporate clients often keep large amounts of data registered in different databases. And they need to use these data in various ways. For example, they might need an audit, conduct trend analyses, or look for patterns in sales figures – all of which are currently done using unnecessarily cumbersome methods. As time is an important asset in business, having huge amounts of data stored in a database is no good if people are unable to find the answers they are looking for before a meeting starts at nine o’clock.

Eating cherries with the big boys
FAST’s enterprise search engine is ranked the fastest and most powerful on the market and has secured FAST contracts with companies such as Reed Elsevier, Reuters, and General Electric. Thus, FAST is competing with database and software companies such as Oracle, SAP, and IBM.The so-called index technology forming the basis for FAST’s search engine provides 10-100 times faster and more comprehensive search results than traditional database searches that are common in enterprises today. For this reason, the fast search engine is used as a basis for developing new tools that require data from multiple sources in and outside the enterprises.

Lately, FAST has been awarded several international prizes for its technology.

Efficient data treatment
The iAd Centre is going to find out how we can change the use of computers. Researchers will look into how we can analyse and treat data as efficiently as possible, and how to handle enormous amounts of information in a short period of time.

Tomorrow’s solutions will enable clients to retrieve the right information at the right time.

That requires the possibility to compare and correlate data from thousands of sources. So far, this has been rather difficult in practice. There are search engines that can handle ten or twenty sources, but the same technology is unable to handle millions of sources fast enough. Time-saving solutions are precisely what the market demands.

Illustrasjonsbilde/FOTO Next generation search tools
The goal of the iAd Centre for the next eight years is to develop the next generation of search tools that can extract user-friendly information from vast and complex amounts of data.

Thus, the challenge is not in gathering and sorting large amounts of information – that skill is already mastered. The director of iAd, Bjørn Olstad, stresses that the point is to make the search as relevant as possible for the user.

“If we are to develop search engines that give perfect hits, we need to work on finding a technology that understands the user’s search habits and network preferences,” emphasizes Bjørn Olstad, who is also adjunct professor at NTNU.

Search-based solutions
The aim is to replace databases with search technology that can handle practically infinite amounts of information. That would provide us with the opportunity to add almost any structured and unstructured data, as well as multimedia data. It is an important point that powerful performance is retained when the volume increases. This means that search-based solutions could replace the ones that up until today have been based on data in databases and data warehouses. By using this new technology we can also make instant analyses of large amounts of documents.

Get rid of the computer
The basis for iAd’s work is the idea that the use of computers gradually will change. Professor Dag Johansen at the University of Tromsø said that the computer should be so simple in use that it almost wipes itself out.

”In a way, the goal should be ‘to get rid of computers’, they should occupy less and less of your time. Imagine the computer being so automatic that it presents the relevant information to you, instead of you spending three hours searching for information that eventually turns out to be irrelevant,” adds Professor Johansen.

However, that requires a system that makes the computer catch anything relevant, from the video chip in a surveillance camera to the sensors on an oil platform. The iAd Centre is going to work towards this scenario.

FACTS

Name of Centre:
Information Access Disruptions – iAd

Host institution:
Fast Search & Transfer ASA

Research Centre Manager:
Bjørn Olstad, adjunct professor at NTNU/Chief Technology Officer of FAST

Vision:
iAd seeks to identify opportunities and develop the next generation search engines that can extract user-friendly information from vast and complex amounts of data. iAd also facilitates interaction between international content and technology suppliers.

Number of staff/students at the Centre/in the research group:
Approx. 50

Norwegian partners:
NTNU, University of Oslo, University of Tromsø, The Norwegian School of Management, Schibsted and Accenture.

International partners:
Cornell University, University College Dublin, and Dublin City University

Postal address:
Fast Search & Transfer ASA
Research Coordinator Stefan Debald
Postboks 1667 Vika
NO-0120 Oslo
Norway

Total budget:
Approx. NOK 240 million

Duration of project:
8 years (5+3)