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Ferret

David Balmain
Published by O'Reilly Media
0-596-52785-3 91 pages
£ $9.99
Published: March 2007
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the September 2007 issue (pdf), (html)
bookcover  

This is an O'Reilly Short Cut. Short Cuts are a series of short booklets (mostly less than 100 pages in length, and mostly priced at $9.99) provided in PDF format as a paid-for download. A quick look at O'Reilly's web site seems to show that more than 80 of these are already available. The very earliest of was published in 2004, but almost all of those listed were published since last summer.

A couple of Short Cuts were reviewed in the last newsletter: this is the first time I've seen one. The review copy I received was actually supplied printed single-sided on A4 paper, looking rather ugly with a large type-face and small margins. Whether this kind of distribution for documents of this type will catch on remains to be seen: I notice that they seem to be only priced in US Dollars, and that they seem not to be available from outlets other than O'Reilly's web site (certainly not from Amazon's UK site). However, we shall certainly be seeing more reviews of this series here, so I felt it was worthwhile to explain exactly what they are.

Ferret is a native port to Ruby of the Apache Lucene library. It is a search library which allows the creation of a search index for text documents. With the use of appropriate filters it allows you to index other formats such as PDF, HTML, Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org files and others.

Ferret claims fast permormance figures for both indexing and search, and seems to be already in fairly widespread use, particularly for internal search tools on sites that make use of the Rails framework.

Ferret was written by the author of this Short Cut, David Balmain, and is partly written in Ruby and partly as Ruby extension code in C. The documentation that comes with the software is fairly clear in the sense that it describes at a technical level the various classes and methods that are available: this document reads more like a tutorial at least at first, but seems to degenerate into a reference towards the end.

I found that by following the text it was easy to write some simple code that worked as expected by modifying the examples given. Having started out in that way, it would not be difficult to use this library to create your own search application for a specific purpose.

If I had simply read the documentation that is included in the package I would probably not have been in a position to do that without quite some deep thought and Googling.

So this Short Cut is useful for those who want to use the software, and it does not directly violate the principle that ``free software should have free documentation'' because Ferret certainly does have relatively complete documentation at least for those used to dealing with Ruby packages. But this Short Cut certainly makes getting started that little bit easier.

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