Saturday, June 17, 2006

Random Ruminations on Search

A couple of random opinions on the state of search…

Much has been made of’s recent resurgence. It has been said that Ask has better features than Google. While this may be true, great algorithms do not a successful search engine make. What really matters to the users of a search engine is how well it caters to the long tail. Take this recent search I made (to put this in context, refer to my previous post). By the looks of it, while the results returned by Ask are quite obviously inadequate, compare them with those returned by my friendly neighborhood search engine. See what I mean? It really boils down to the quality of a search engine’s crawling infrastructure which is going to be on par only if a company has the muscle to pull this off. Does anyone out there see Ask plonk down $2 billion to upgrade their datacenter? I think not.

Reading this recent article (if you don’t subscribe to the BBC tech news RSS feed, do so – they have some of the best articles out there) got me thinking about how cool it would be if search engines had a feature that validates search results for safety. I wanted to blog about it sometime (complete with mock up screen shots). Just as well I didn’t do it since scandoo already does it for you. While the creators of the product admit that it is somewhat nascent, a superficial test showed up some interesting results. Try searching scandoo for something as innocuous as your name followed my a search term related to the world’s favorite 3-letter word (I will refrain from giving suggestions in an attempt to keep this space G-rated). See the difference? I was impressed by how scandoo managed to whitelist a wikipedia entry on my search term while blacklisting a site whose credentials were somewhat more suspect. While it is not clear at this point how credible their techniques are, a mature product really has the potential to disrupt the consumer AV and spyware software market. Why? Because unlike enterprises, consumers don’t need to be secure. They just need to feel secure. If Google, Yahoo! and MSN plug a major entry point for spyware, it may end up removing desktop AV/spyware software from a consumer’s list of “must-haves”.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

In Pursuit of Interoperability

Microsoft has often been accused of messing with protocol standards and such. I recently found out what this really meant. Ever heard of WINS? No? Well if you are a *nix person, I don’t really blame you. It is a naming service specific to NetBIOS. As with a lot of other things Microsoft attempts to mishmash existing standards and technologies with proprietary stuff. They have this feature that allows you to send a standard DNS request to a sever containing a NetBIOS name. The DNS server unable to resolve this request (duh!) can be configured to forward it on to a WINS server for resolution. Makes sense? What can go wrong here. Well, turns out that if a *nix client makes a zone transfer (AXFR) request to a Windows DNS server, the WINS resource record (RR) will be sent along with the rest of the zone file. The *nix client not knowing how to interpret this crashes and dies. This was in fact a bug in NT and was fixed in one of the innumerable Service Packs that were released for that product. Nowadays, if you want to look at the WINS RR via an AXFR, you will need to declare yourself as a Microsoft DNS client by appending the characters “MS” to a vanilla AXFR request. As if this quirk were not enough, the hex value 0xc00c is to be found pervasively in the results of a AXFR to a Microsoft client. This bizarre separator is explained by the fact that if there is a frequently occurring string, Microsoft’s implementation of DNS attempts to save bandwidth by simply giving a pointer to the very first instance of that string in the packet as explained by this paper. To their credit however, Microsoft does engineer for interoperability. I am not saying its not clever. Just quirky.

I am Baaacck

So Jim called me up this evening and guilt tripped me into ensuring that my blog does not die a premature death (“Hey Bharath, what’s up? Long time, no blog). Given that I am just about ready to hit the sack **yaaawn**, I figured that a good way to go would be to dispense with the customary navel gazing and blog about something that doesn’t require too much thinking – a much delayed addendum to my previous post. So what (else) makes you realize you’re in Silicon Valley?
  • Where else in the country do you have sports stadiums that are named the McAfee Coliseum, HP Pavilion and Monster Park?
  • Advertisement hoardings at the local baseball game plug Genentech, Applied Materials and Juniper Networks.
  • The cable guy shows up for an install, sees that I am Indian and leaves his shoes outside the door without me asking him to do it.
  • Chirayu and I were walking down a non-descript street in Palo Alto looking for the HP garage when this guy who fits the mould of a pizza delivery guy walks up to us and says – “You guys looking for the HP place? There it is, right there.”