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Ask yourself: would you know where to find all of your organisation's data? Not just the database records and resource planning spreadsheets, but everything – the Word documents, emails and even conversations in social media channels that relate to the running of your business. It's a lot of stuff, some of which might be stored in places that only a few employees actually know about.

Having a large, distributed library of dissimilar data repositories can make it very difficult for organisations to use all of their information assets effectively. Let's say you're looking for an old revenue forecast: you might not know whether it's located in a Word document or an Excel workbook, on one server or another, or with or without appropriate metadata. It's likely to be a time-consuming and frustrating endeavour, and possibly even a fruitless one.

Luckily, there's a solution to this problem: enterprise search. Despite having a somewhat ambiguous title, this describes a very specific functionality present in various software packages: the ability to carry out a search query across multiple heterogenous sources of data, which might be distributed to all corners of the business network.

This isn't a simple proposition. An effective enterprise search solution needs to locate and index massive amounts of data, dealing with different filetypes and interpreting sometimes inconsistent metadata. What's more, it needs to respect access permissions – a user's search query should only ever return documents they're permitted to view, even if their search terms match with dozens of others. As such, these systems can be expensive, difficult to set up and exhausting to maintain.

However, many organisations already have an extremely powerful enterprise search solution at their fingertips – there's one built into SharePoint 2013.

Enterprise search in SharePoint 2013

First, a little history. The search functionality in SharePoint 2013 is descended from FAST, which started life as the flagship enterprise search solution of FAST Search & Transfer in the late 1990s. Microsoft acquired the company for $1.2 billion (£0.8 billion) in 2008, duly adding its technology to SharePoint 2010 as a bolt-on product called FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint. It was still, at this point, a niche solution, but things would change in the subsequent version of the collaboration platform.

FAST enterprise search is part of SharePoint 2013's native search functionality, meaning no add-ons or extras are required to start indexing content from non-SharePoint sources – or, for that matter, browsing it using FAST's sophisticated search syntax.

Another powerful feature that debuted with the transition from SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2013 is continuous crawling. In the past, site administrators would have to manually schedule crawls to update their search indices, whereas with continuous crawling, data repositories are checked for changes every 15 minutes by default. This means a search query always returns up-to-the-minute results rather than documents that have potentially been edited since the last crawl.

Of course, this only really scratches the surface of the possibilities of SharePoint 2013's enterprise search functionality. Other potential uses include the analysis of search results and user interaction, the classification of unstructured content via common entities such as the words and phrases contained inside, and even the use of Web Parts to display the results of pre-defined queries automatically.

So, is your organisation making use of SharePoint's powerful search capabilities? Or is it still a perpetual struggle to find the documents you need?

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