Search has become an indispensable tool in any application or repository today, considering the vast amounts of data we generate. How many times have you searched for something specific in your application, codebase, documentation, or even your own file system, for that matter? Countless times, and this is besides the hundreds of web searches we make.
Since search is ubiquitous and in many ways, an integral part of our life and work, Microsoft has introduced a new feature called Azure Search.
This feature is a programmable search engine with intelligent search behavior that powers the search bar on your website, application, or documents. It's also a managed search service that runs on all applications, whether they are in the cloud or on-premise.
This discussion brings up an important question -- why Azure Search? Why can't I create my own search box and customize it the way I want? Or even choose some other search engine?
Why Azure search?
Today, users prefer to interact with data in a meaningful day. Gone are the days when just the information and look and feel of a website or app alone was enough to bring in users. The current digital generation expects not just a clean user interface, but also myriad opportunities to interact with it, so that they can get a more meaningful experience from the app. In such a scenario, a world-class search engine becomes a must-have feature.
So, why should you go for Azure Search?
Easy to install
The first and probably the biggest reason is the ease and convenience that comes with it. Development teams need a certain amount of time and resources to build their own search engine, and this can range from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the capabilities of the team. Why go through this hassle when you have a product like Azure Search that's readily available and easy to install?
Technically, you can also consider installing and running a commercial search engine, but that can be a lot of work too. There is always a chance for bugs when you try to integrate it with your application, and this can take more of your time and effort. In addition, you'll have to manage the search technology when you build or install a commercial engine, and this may require dedicated resources, too.
Azure Search, on the other hand, is simple to install and use. All that you have to do is create an instance and start using it right away.
Azure search works well on any kind of application hosted anywhere. This means, you can use it on an application that runs on Azure cloud platform, any on-premise datacenter, or even ones that run on other cloud platforms.
To top it, Azure can use any kind of database. Whether it's a managed service such as SQL Database, a RDBMS such as SQLserver, or a NoSQL store running on a virtual machine, Azure Search simply sits alongside this database, and provides indexes to search the data.
As an IT professional, this flexibility is sure to make life easy for you.
No rules for UI
Azure Search lays no rules at all on how a user interface should look, so as an application creator, you're free to give it any search UI that goes well with your application.
Developers get this flexibility because Azure Search exposes all RESTful interface to applications through standard HTTP verbs such as GET and PUT. Microsoft even offers a .NET SDK to hide raw calls to RESTful interfaces, just to make the interface a lot easy to use.
Since Azure Search is a managed service, you have more control over it when compared to commercial options like Bing and Google. You can use it the way you want, customize it to meet your application's specific needs, use any kind of underlying database, and more. A significant advantage of Azure Search is you can decide what results your search should display and in what order.
This complete control is what makes Azure Search so powerful and convenient compared to other search options out there.
Now that you have a fair idea of what Azure Search can do for you, let's look at some practical scenarios where this will come handy.
Here are some situations where Azure Search would work best for you.
Search is absolutely essential for an ecommerce app, simply because it helps users find what they want quickly. Can you imagine amazon.com or walmart.com without a search bar? You'd probably spend the entire day looking for one product! This makes search a basic feature in any ecommerce site.
However, as an organization, you'd want to have control over what information is returned to the user and the order of the results. For example, let's say, Nike is paying you a price for promoting its products. You'd naturally want a Nike product to be the first item when someone searches for shoes.
Sometimes, you'll have more stock of a particular brand and you'll want to display this item first in the results, so you can sell them fast.
You can do all this with Azure Search because it's flexible and gives you complete control over its management, and more importantly over how customers search through your site to find what they want.
User-generated content apps
User-generated apps such as forums and discussion sites provide a platform for like-minded individuals to interact and talk about common topics. As a site owner, this can also present business opportunities by way of sponsored content or promotional products.
When users search through the many threads and discussions on your site, you'll want to show results in a specific order to derive the maximum business benefits, and this is exactly what Azure Search allows you to do.
Traditionally, any custom application is accessed by navigating through the user interface until users find what they want. However, this approach works well only if the user knows the application thoroughly or if the application is fairly simple and intuitive, which may not always be the case.
Many business applications would be more usable if there is a search option for users to get to relevant information quickly. This custom feature is best done through Azure Search because it's accurate and easy to integrate with any kind of application.
The above scenarios are not a comprehensive list, as Azure Search can be customized to suit any application. This is just to give you an idea on where you can use this feature.
Moving on, let's now see how to get the most out of Azure Search.
How to use Azure Search
The first step to using Azure Search is to create an instance of this service. While creating, you have to specify certain configuration parameters such as the datacenter and capacity of the instance. Once this is done, your app can connect to Azure Search through the RESTful interface it provides.
To start using Azure Search, your application should first create an index. This is the fundamental data store of the search feature, and it should contain information that Azure Search can access. After creating indexes, the application can start providing search capabilities to users.
Creating a search feature doesn't get easier than this!
You can implement Azure Search in any application using almost any kind of database. Besides this flexibility, it comes with many advantages such as easy installation, ready availability, and, more importantly, ability to customize the results to reflect your business needs.
Are you up to trying out this feature?
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