Search Yourself: A Review of the Google Mini

by Aaron Weiss

Google Mini, the offspring of the 800-pound search gorilla, lets small businesses provide Internet and intranet search capability to their customers and employees. We take a look at what this 200-pound gorilla can do.

Google is about as familiar and ubiquitous as a search technology can get, and yet the Google Mini presents a potent new pitch — why not power your organization's indexing and searching needs with a Google to call your own? The company packs its search technology into the Mini's thin blue box and slaps it with a starting sticker price of $1,995. They call it a search appliance, and it promises to bring the now-familiar Google experience to your intranet.

The Google Mini
The Google Mini brings search capability to your Web site and intranet.

A Mini What?
The Google Mini is a "pizza box" style computer — flat and wide — and ready to plug in to a server rack. In IT parlance, the Mini is a 1U-sized server, decorated in an eye-catching blue with a wrap-around Google logo. While the company doesn't divulge the exact technical specifications of the Mini, it runs a version of the Red Hat Linux operating system on what Google describes as "standard" Intel/PC hardware.

The Mini is designed to run headless, meaning without a monitor, and all interaction with it takes place across the network through a Web browser. Google has designed the Mini to be as hands-off as a black (or in this case, blue) box can be. You can't even (legally) open the case if you wanted to.

Setting Up
Along with the Mini, Google ships a well-written printed manual, a power cord and two network cables — one a crossover cable used for initial setup. The Mini has only a power button on its face, but being a server, it's designed to run continuously. Powerful fans keep its insides cool, which is another way of saying that it's loud: Very Loud. You won't mind as long as you can keep it in an already-noisy, closed-off server room or other out-of-the-way location.

The Mini features two LAN ports, one of which is used only for initial setup. The setup LAN port assigns a DHCP IP address to whatever computer you've connected to it. You then open a browser and connect to the Mini's static setup address.

In the initial setup process you configure the Mini's network settings for your organization. You'll need to know what IP address to assign it, its host name, subnet mask, DNS servers, SMTP server and an NTP server. Because the Mini will need to "see" all the parts of your network that you want indexed and searchable, a network administrator will need to check that any firewalls or routing tables are properly configured.

Google Mini setup wizard
The Google Mini's setup wizard walks you through the installation process.
(Click for larger image)

Doing the Crawl
Putting the Google Mini to work basically involves two kinds of activities: telling it what to index and providing search access to your users.

First things first: the Mini needs to index — or "crawl" — your organization's documents. It can access your documents three ways: HTTP (standard Web browsing), HTTPS (secure Web browsing), and CIFS, or shared network folders. Documents restricted to access by other protocols, such as FTP, cannot be seen by the Mini, unless they are also accessible by one of the above three supported methods.

Using its administration interface, you supply the Mini with a list of URLs to start its crawl. The Mini will follow links within those documents to build up a Web of indexed files. You restrict which links the Mini follows by specifying pattern requirements — for example, you typically setup a pattern so that the Mini follows links only to documents in your network rather than at third-party external sites.

You can also manage global rules to allow or prevent the Mini from indexing certain kinds of files, such as Excel documents or images. By default the Mini has dozens of rules already in place covering a wide variety of file types, and you can easily enable or disable each rule to suit your company's particular needs.

The Mini can index the content of 220 types of files, including HTML, PDF, Microsoft Office, Microsoft PowerPoint, WordPerfect, Lotus Domino, Lotus 1-2-3, compressed archives, all common e-mail formats and many more. But with convenience comes risk. Be sure not to inadvertently expose sensitive information.

One way to segregate different kinds of data in your network is by creating collections. Each named collection can serve a separate index. You could implement a proxy server in front of the Google Mini to password protect certain collections and not others, but the Mini itself does not support building authentication into each collection.

You can setup crawling as a continuous process or as a scheduled event, depending how often your indexed content changes.

Search Is King
One of Google's marketing pitches for the Mini reads "familiarity breeds contentment." Smartly, they're leveraging Google's existing popularity. Your customers probably use Google to search the Web, so why not give them that same experience inside your network?

To that end, the Google Mini provides several means for making search available to your customers. While the Mini is primarily pitched for indexing your Intranet, you really can index any of your sites — even those located elsewhere on the Web — and serve your search either internally or onto the Internet.

The simplest way to provide search is to direct visitors to the Mini's default search page. You can do this as a standalone page, or integrate the default search box into an existing Web page. Google designed its default search to look just like its Web-based search, with the added feature of including your Mini in its search results.

A slightly more advanced, but also more customizable, method to provide search is to create your own HTML search forms. Google's online Mini support documentation provides code and specifications. It's easy work for anyone familiar with coding Web pages.

The Google Mini also includes tools for integrating searches into other applications. For example, you can integrate the Google Mini directly into your company's Web browser, the same way people can add the standard Google Toolbar to their PC browsers. The difference, of course, is that the Google Mini "Toolbar for Enterprise" searches your company's site(s), not the entire Internet.

The most advanced way to integrate the Mini into your company (that is, if you have the need and the Web development savvy) is to take the Mini's raw search results (in XML format) and customize the look to match your company's existing Web site design.

One last customization point: The Mini provides limited control over the order in which it returns search results. Google offers a feature called KeyMatch that lets you assign a set of search terms to a document so that if anyone searches those terms, that document will be promoted to the top of the results list.

Fans of metrics will not lack for information with the Google Mini's many kinds of reporting options. The Mini can serve up live statistics including its indexing performance and its search results performance. It can generate summary reports for popular keywords, failure modes and other usage profiles.

Turnkey Defined
Pitched as a veritable plug-and-play search solution, the Mini achieves its goal. The product, from setup to execution, is well thought out and the quality is what you'd expect from the Google brand.

Google sells the Mini in four versions, which vary only in how many documents they will index. The $1,995 Mini indexes up to 50,000 documents, whereas you can index 100,000 documents for $2,995, 200,000 documents for $5,995, or 300,000 for $8,995. You can upgrade the Mini license should you need to increase your indexing limits.

All the licenses include one year of full e-mail support, software updates and overnight hardware replacement should the Mini suffer a failure. Google does not offer phone support. Annual license renewal costs $995, which you can choose to forego. The Mini will continue to function, however it will not be eligible for further support, software upgrades or hardware replacement.

The Google Mini offers a compelling search solution for organizations that have significant piles of local documents, a desire to customize the presentation of search results and a place to keep the noisy box from disturbing anyone.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is: bordella.com

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This article was originally published on Wednesday May 24th 2006
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