Lucid Imagination adds support for Apache search tools

Lucid Imagination offers support and enhanced services for popular Apache Web server open source enterprise search tools Lucene and Solr.

Lucid Imagination now offers paid support for the popular open source Apache Web server's Lucene and Solr enterprise search and navigation tools, helping data centers with search enhancements, routine maintenance and complex problems.

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The 2-year-old San Mateo, Calif.-based firm, which maintains strong ties to the original Apache developers of the Lucene and Solr search engine projects, now offers several support levels that are priced between $12,000 and $18,000 annually per 10 servers.

The paid support includes bug fixes, upgrades, annual tune-ups (at higher service levels), software certification and unspecified specialized services forthcoming in the future.

Open source tools in the enterprise search pool
Lucid Imagination believes the launch of its paid support is a timely entrée into the fast-growing market for enterprise search, which corporate intranets and e-commerce sites use. In contrast to Web search, enterprise search is narrower but more demanding, producing more targeted and up-to-date responses to often general inquiries and drawing from wide-ranging formats while conforming to corporate security requirements, said Sue Feldman, vice president of search and discovery technologies at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC She places the enterprise search market at about $2 billion and expects it to grow 28% a year.

Recently infused with $6 million in venture funding to broaden its mission, the consulting company hopes the availability of commercial support will bolster adoption of the decade-old Lucene, one of the top five Apache open source projects for high-traffic websites such as Wikipedia and FedEx, and the newer Solr navigation tool.

Lucid CEO Eric Gries and CTO Mark Krellenstein said that data centers will benefit from support because many of the websites that use Lucene and Solr run mission-critical operations and cannot afford downtime.

Ranga Muvavarirwa, director of architecture with Philadelphia, Pa.-based Comcast Interactive Media, offered additional reasons why his Comcast library division of on-demand TV shows and movies benefits from Lucid Imagination's support and services.

First, Comcast Interactive doesn't want its IT staff to answer troubleshooting calls at midnight, Muvavarirwa said.

Second, although Comcast Interactive's in-house staff performs routine maintenance for its constantly shifting content and changing viewer preferences, it still needs Lucid's help to solve complex problems and create special enhancements, he said. Lucid, in turn, incorporates these enhancements into future updates of the open source software so Comcast Interactive needn't maintain the changes itself, he added.

Comcast chose Lucene and Solr over proprietary products after the open source search and navigation tools outperformed the top two competitors in speed and accuracy, Muvavarirwa said. Although he declined to specify, the leading proprietary products are Google Appliance, Microsoft Fast, Endeca and Autonomy. Lucene and Solr have 80% of the features of rival search products but the missing elements were functions that Comcast Interactive didn't need or could build less expensively than buying a whole commercial package, he said. Lucene and Solr were "an order of magnitude cheaper," he added.

Another factor in favor of open source Lucene and Solr is Google's rapid displacement of its commercial rivals, which could lead to a forced vendor change down the road if Comcast had chosen a different proprietary vendor, Muvavarirwa added.

Besides, with its Apache roots and cluster of search engine innovators, Lucene/ Solr is like "the Linux of search," he said.

Jim Jagielski, chairman of the Apache Software Foundation, said companies like Lucid Imagination promote the open source movement because paid support services reduce the perceived risk for businesses considering the use of open source for the first time.

Other firms have used this business model successfully, Jagielski said. The key is whether or not Lucid Imagination continues to be an active contributor to the open source development community, he said. If not, Lucid will have "a tough go of it," he said.

A still-young market
Others say it's hard to find vendors that actually profit from the sale of such add-on services. Linux power Red Hat Inc., Raleigh, N.C., may be the exception to the rule, they maintain. Even London-based Canonical Ltd., commercial backer of the popular Ubuntu desktop software, has yet to earn a profit.

Gries said that enterprise search has a better chance of selling support services because search engines require constant tweaking to stay optimized. In addition, Lucid Imagine plans to supplement its support with premium services in the near future, he said.

Muvavarirwa agreed with Gries' conclusion. Some small data centers might find it cheaper to outsource support because search maintenance is so specialized and expensive, he added.

Feldman cautioned, however, that although Lucid Imagination works with great technology, it needs to develop the tools into a complete out-of-the-box software package and then craft a clear marketing message explaining why a data center needs this sophisticated search capability. "Search is not something [data centers] know about," she said.

Michael Coté, an analyst at Seattle-based RedMonk, said Lucene is widely used and works well, but its value is hard to communicate until after a company already has the product and can find the documents it needs.

"Lucene is successful enough and the [developer] community is wide enough, so it's definitely worth a shot at wrapping a company around it," he said. "It's not a crazy idea."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Pam Derringer at Pderringer@comcast.net..

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