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DAU upgrades online search capabilities

Jan. 3, 2014 - 01:12PM   |  
By ERIK SCHECHTER   |   Comments
The Defense Acquisition University replaced its online search tools to give users more relevant results.
The Defense Acquisition University replaced its online search tools to give users more relevant results. (File)
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Need to find that new defense procurement regulation? No problem. Defense Acquisition University officials promise that conducting an enterprise search of the school’s corporate website, intranet, online catalogue and related communities of practice sites will no longer be the exercise in frustration it once was. That’s because DAU.mil now offers visitors a federated search capability enabled by Google Search Appliance version 7.0.

The tool is still in its infancy, says Mike Lambert, DAU’s deputy director for strategic planning and learning analytics, speaking during a C4ISR & Networks editorial webcast. (You can register to view the webcast here.) But he says that it is his “personal drive” to get the search engine to perform so seamlessly that it is just an afterthought for users.

“[W]e are going to keep on improving it and make it very similar to the type of user experience that folks going to Google.com or Bing.com would have,” Lambert says.

By 2011, it was hard for DAU officials to ignore the mounting criticism. Users found navigating the school’s broadly associated websites and sub-sites a maddening effort. The Defense Acquisition Portal and Acquisition Community Connection sites, for example, were not tied to the corporate site. So if someone searched DAU.mil for a particular document, “in all likelihood, you were not finding it right away or you were not finding it all,” Lambert says.

In addition, DAU relied on four different search tools operating at various levels of functionality, the outdated and unsupported RetrievalWare being in the worst shape. DAU software engineers did their best to keep the RetrievalWare going, but it still required frequent rebooting. Indeed, Lambert recalls one awkward moment when former DAU President Katrina McFarland had a knowledge management site crash on her during a Pentagon demonstration.

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So, last year, DAU formed a broadly representative Enterprise Tiger Team to study options for a federated, enterprise search tool that would allow users access what they needed from one website. The tool also had to play well with Microsoft SharePoint, the platform hosting the corporate site, and could not require too much supporting infrastructure and maintenance given the school’s limited data system and budget.

Boosting the relevancy of search results was also key. This meant that the Enterprise Tiger Team needed to better understand what information the mainly Defense Department users wanted. To that end, Google Analytics was “very instrumental in getting our arms around” the problem, says Lambert.

Operating within all those parameters, the Enterprise Tiger Team identified five potential enterprise search solutions in a May 2012 report to DAU’s Technology Council. However, the council decided against a brand-new solution for budget reasons and instead had the team look at existing tools: Google Search Appliance 6.0, in conjunction the cloud-hosted Google Site Search, which was put in place as a stop-gap measure, and SharePoint 2010 Search.

As the team began testing the two solutions, Google offered DAU in August 2012 the opportunity to the try the newest version of its Google Search Appliance. So the team took commonly searched terms and assessed how this new tool would perform against SharePoint 2010 Search in two six-week periods between September and November.

Initially, Lambert says, SharePoint came out a “little bit more ahead” in terms of relevant search results. But that gap started to close in the second round of testing as Google Search Appliance 7.0 improved with increased usage and more queries. Still, in terms of initial investment, the Google tool was more expensive than Microsoft. So, he says, “we had to take a harder look at the administration and maintenance side” in terms of a three-year lifetime cost.

The team concluded that the Google solution was easier to implement and cheaper over the long haul, and the Technology Council went with that recommendation. This year, DAU procured Google Search Appliance 7.0, which went live on the public-facing site in November. Lambert is now planning to survey users about the new federated, enterprise search.

“There are always refinements you need to take into consideration with these tools,” he says.

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