May the Salesforce Be with You

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff on Sept. 17 unveiled Force.com, previewed Visual Force and unveiled Ideas. The packed convention hall was filled with Salesforce.com faithful who were politely enthusiastic when prodded to applaud. Force.com makes Benioff feel like he's working at a startup again while also striving to break $1 billion

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff on Sept. 17 unveiled Force.com, previewed Visual Force and unveiled Ideas. The packed convention hall was filled with Salesforce.com faithful who were politely enthusiastic when prodded to applaud.

Force.com makes Benioff feel like he's working at a startup again while also striving to break $1 billion dollars a year and move Salesforce.com beyond a CRM (customer relationship management) company into one of the top 40 software companies in the world.

While a company that has as its moniker the now famous "no software" slogan, this might seem to make little sense. But it does make sense if you take Salesforce.com for what it wants to become: the general infrastructure upon which applications are built, data is collected and processed and information is then spit back, without needing much beyond smartish terminals in the enterprise.

Benioff wants organizations large and small to rent Salesforce.com's platform, customize it to their liking and then get on with the business of running their business instead of administering an internal IT infrastructure.

It sounds good when you hear the guy. And according to the company's own figures it is making significant progress. It is just shy of 1 billion seats subscribed to the system. The two fully mirrored data centers meet a dizzying array of security and redundancy specifications to provide service to customers.

I couldn't help but think of 2004 when IBM started talking about utility computing, where service capacity is outsourced as needed with the customer paying only for what they needed. The Sun Compute Utility enables basically the same thing: a data center on-demand. And now Salesforce.com with Force.com and the company's Apex application development environment wants to be the multitenant, subscription-based next step in utility computing.

There are many advantages to this model, but I want to address a couple of questions that still nag at me. The first is availability. While the commercial Internet is far more reliable than it was even a couple of years ago, there are still service outages. It's a problem that is growing less frequent, but if organizations continue to rely on distant data centers for their life's blood, then the problem needs to stay pretty much close to zero.

The second is all this renting. Renting applications and platforms brings with it recurring costs that never go away. Lately, the more I look at the operations costs associated with maintaining an infrastructure, my resistance to renting apps lessons.

If SAAS (software as a service) can "socialize" security, compliance and disaster recovery costs amongst a big enough group, then my gut feeling about renting goes down even more. Salesfore.com can probably show me that renting is more cost effective than owning. With compliance and security costs factored in, I'm more likely to think it's true.

At the end of the day I want choice to move my data and apps to the most cost-effective platform. The more Benioff crowed about the large numbers of customizations, API calls and general tweaks that Salesforce.com customers have made to their apps, the more I felt locked in to the platform. Of course, Salesforce.com loves to hear that customers are building customizations. The more of these they make, the harder it is to port apps to another platform and the more chances there are to point out "well, you could leave, but can you really give up ... x ... y ... z?"

Maybe this was part of the reason for the polite but prodded clapping coming from the gathered faithful. While Benioff welcomed competition in the SAAS field (which I don't doubt; it's terrible to be the leader of a field of one), there are still some kinks that customers will need to work out to ensure that the SAAS market remains one where organizations can make choices about providers.

This won't come from Dreamforce '07, but it's certainly something to keep in mind. Standards for the SAAS field might make the competition Benioff hopes for a reality.