NETWORK FILE INDEXING MISSING FROM VISTA (superseded 12/19/06)

EDIT: On December 19, Microsoft released an add-in to index files on network shares in Windows Vista. See this comment.

ORIGINAL POST:

Windows Vista cannot index files on a network share. It cannot do instant searches for text in files stored on a network server.

This is startling. It is infuriating. It may tip the scales against Vista for my business clients. Let me give you some background about why this seems so important.

Most small businesses handle their business flow by organizing company files in a central location, sorted into folders – typically organized by client name. That’s adequate to avoid the expense of a document management program or a separate network appliance for project management, data storage, collaboration and indexing.

Businesses running Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 are set up with a “Company” folder for shared files. Following best practices recommended by Microsoft, individual users have their “My Documents” folders redirected onto the server. By design, individual workstations don’t hold any interesting data; no time or expense is put into backing up the workstations. If one fails, it’s repaired or replaced from scratch.

“Offline files” allows a workstation to have a local copy of folders shared from the server, and can be enabled for individual user folders. In practice, users are irritated by its error messages when it stumbles on file types that can’t be stored offline (Microsoft Access .MDB files, for example). It’s quirky but helpful with laptops but shouldn’t be necessary for desktop computers, and in any case it wouldn’t be used on the “Company” folder.

Programs for indexing and searching Outlook and document folders have literally revolutionized the business flow in small offices. Windows Desktop Search is the single most important and most successful new technology that I’ve introduced to my clients in the last year. Businesses drowning in e-mail and files have new confidence that information can be retrieved instead of lost. People understand it, they immediately see its power, and they immediately begin using it every day.

Microsoft understands the power of instant access to our stored information, so “Instant Search” is one of the most heavily promoted features of Windows Vista. “Search” is deeply embedded in the system; it’s the first place your cursor lands when you click on the Start button, it’s the primary method intended by Microsoft for finding programs, it’s available everywhere – from the Start menu, from Windows Explorer, from Internet Explorer. Windows Vista is built on the same technology as Windows Desktop Search version 3.0, running in the operating system as a service and constantly keeping an up to date index of everything in Outlook and every file stored on the system.

I believe that during beta testing of Vista and through some point in the release candidate process, Vista included the ability to add a network share to the locations indexed, just as Windows Desktop Search 2.6 does, and Windows Desktop Search 3.0 does with an add-in.

The final release of Vista cannot index a network share. There is no way to index the contents of files on a server and do an instant search. The add-in for WDS 3.0 cannot be installed on Vista.

This is difficult to find out. The only clear statement I can find is in the Vista Search help file under “Troubleshoot problems with searching”:

“Only files and folders located on your computer can be added to the index. This means that network locations will be searched more slowly than files on your computer.”

In practice, searching a network share for a file name is glacially slow, and searching for text in a network file is effectively impossible.

Microsoft’s promotional materials for Vista are currently misleading or completely wrong. Here’s one example on the page marketing Vista’s search features to businesses:

“Windows Vista helps organizations effectively manage complex data collections and provides new search capabilities so that users can quickly find almost anything on their computer or company servers.”

There is almost no information available about why this feature was removed from Vista. One developer’s comment suggests that indexing didn’t scale well – the traffic from hundreds of computers updating their indexes could overwhelm the network. I can understand that would be a hard problem. But Microsoft has given us that technology with Windows XP and encouraged network administrators to use it – the home page for Windows Desktop Search has “Enabled for the enterprise” at the top in large, bold letters, and tucks the link for individual users at the bottom.

And now Microsoft has taken it away in Windows Vista.

Vista will index the contents of folders stored locally as Offline Files, which is a workaround for individual user folders. For both practical and technical reasons, it is not possible to put a copy of the entire contents of Company folders on each and every workstation – and it is irresponsible of Microsoft to put us in a position where we would even consider it.

I’ve seen comments suggesting that Vista will be able to search indexes maintained by the next generation of Windows server technology, currently being developed under the name “Longhorn.” Small businesses will not be integrating a Longhorn server into their environment for a long time to come – its release is a year or more away and a Small Business Server edition will likely lag considerably behind that. A computer running Vista can also read the indexes maintained by another computer running Vista, which is irrelevant in this context.

I’ve been evaluating the final release of Vista Business Edition for the last couple of weeks and I will have a lot more to say about it. I can tell you, though, that I haven’t seen anything in Vista compelling enough for business users that it compensates for the loss of network searches.

There’s more to come, and far more to say about Vista, but this is a very dark cloud hanging over its undeniably appealing new features.