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Making sense of Salesforce.com

Some software, some risk

As the Salesforce.com customer base grows - it is currently 41,000 customers and 1.1 million subscribers - it becomes a more attractive target for third-party software vendors. You can market a custom Salesforce application through the official AppExchange, or create your own on-demand application and sell it to your own subscribers.

What, then, are the main reservations? Well, Benioff apparently has not read Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's essay on "Free". As a customer, you have to be willing to pay Salesforce.com a per-subscriber annual fee forever.

As a third-party vendor, you have to be willing to pay Salesforce.com a proportion of your revenue forever. Custom objects, custom language, custom UI tags: it won't be easy to move away. This is proprietary lock-in reborn for the web.

Second, if you use any hosted application platform you lose control. If you find yourself needing some new feature that the platform doesn't implement, you have to ask nicely and wait in hope, or find some way to implement it using a mash-up or APEX code.

If you can't wrest the performance you want from the platform, you can't upgrade the hardware or introduce a stored procedure: it is what it is. As an example, I heard users complain that the security system is insufficiently fine-grained. Improvements are coming, but they have to wait.

Third, you have to trust Salesforce.com with your data, and trust it to stay available. If you run your business on Salesforce.com, and it goes offline, you may as well all go home. Now, arguably the guys at Salesforce.com will work as hard or harder than your in-house team to keep systems up and running, and in most cases have more resources to work with, but nevertheless, it is a matter of trust.

Money saver?

Fourth, this is mainly a web-application platform, though you can make offline applications or desktop applications using the API. The core user interface is functional rather than attractive, and I saw lots of flashing screens and browser messages saying "waiting for na5.salesforce.com".

Visualforce AJAX components will help. In practice, though, business users do not care that much provided they get the results they want. Still, it's a point worth noting. Microsoft argues that "software plus services" delivers a better user experience. The rejoinder is that "software plus services" removes key benefits of the software as a service model.

In the end, it comes down to a business case. It should be possible to sit down and calculate whether a move to Salesforce.com for some part of an organization's IT provision will cost money, or save money. The people I spoke to at the show though it worked for them.

This article originally appeared in ITWriting.

Copyright © 2008, ITWriting.

A freelance journalist since 1992, Tim Anderson specializes in programming and internet development topics. He has columns in Personal Computer World and IT Week, and also contributes regularly to The Register. He writes from time to time for other periodicals including Developer Network Journal Online, and Hardcopy.

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