Salesforce's Force.com Platform, Demystified

By Robert Lemos, CIO.com |  On-demand Software, Force.com, Salesforce.com

When online security firm Websense needed to extend an internally-developed tool for creating customer quotes, CIO Jim Haskin was faced with a choice: Continue to build the system in-house or move application development to a third-party service.

Haskin chose the latter option and, in less than two months, created a complex tool to allow Websense employees to manage and track quotes. His platform of choice: Force.com, Salesforce.com's foray into cloud computing. The reasons for the choice "are fundamentally very aligned with why you would go to Salesforce in the first place," Haskins says. "If you buy into the software-as-a-service concept, and you have decided that Salesforce.com can meet your needs, a similar line of reasoning applies to extending that platform."

The company created the application faster and at a lower price than it would have cost for in-house development and maintenance, Haskin says. Moreover, the lack of ongoing headaches is a big advantage for IT managers, such as Haskin.

"If there is an outage in the middle of the day, not only does no one call me, but I don't have to call them," he says. "On the other hand, when the e-mail server goes down, or something internal happens, the phones are ringing off the hook."

Introduced in 2007, Force.com is a platform that allows companies to create online applications that allow outside partners, salespeople, franchisees and branch offices to access and manage customer data.

Known in cloud-computing lingo as a platform-as-a-service (PaaS), Force.com makes the jobs of IT managers like Haskin easier by simplifying development and eliminating infrastructure headaches. Salesforce.com, best known for its customer relationship management (CRM) system, boasts that companies who use Force.com, on average, create applications five times faster at half the cost.

Hotel and casino owner Harrah's Entertainment built three Force.com applications that allow its sales people and customer-service representatives to reserve seats on private flights, access room reservations and manage important customers' trips to Harrah's properties. Pizza franchise Papa Murphy's uses the platform-as-a-service to allow its business groups to keep track of the health of the company's 900 stores. Overall, Salesforce's 55,000 customers have built more than 100,000 applications using Force.com, says Ariel Kelman, senior director of product marketing at Salesforce.

"I think for most of our customers, they don't look for a tipping point in terms of technology, but what type of applications are the best fit for their enterprise," Kelman says.

By focusing on making the technology more efficient, Salesforce has been able to keep costs low, Kelman says. Perhaps the companies biggest efficiency advantage is its focus on multi-tenancy, allowing a single application to serve multiple customers yet partition their data securely into virtualized spaces. Salesforce.com has pushed the efficiency of its multi-tenant systems in its data centers higher every year, according to a whitepaper on the technology penned by the firm.

"The shared architecture is able to run at a much higher level of server utilization in our data centers than our customers would be able to run," Kelman says. "That allows us to offer much more at a lower cost."

Salesforce.com has also focused on security, a frequent sticking point for cloud services. The company has had to satisfy the concerns of its largest customers by adopting strict security measures, from which even its smallest customers then benefit.

"Every time that these companies do an audit of our technology and we get advice, we make our security better," Kelman says. "All of our 55,000 customers get that benefit."

Pushing new features out to all customers is a business model that partially drives the success of cloud services. In addition to better security, Salesforce.com has focused on creating other significant features. In March, the company announced that it would offer applications on the Force.com platform that allow companies to communicate with customers and employees using the major social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. (For more detail, see "Why Salesforce.com's Social Media Smarts Could Get You Closer to Customers.")

Already, Websense is looking at how to expand their use of Force.com. Soon the company plans to allow its partners to use its custom quote tool, something that would be very difficult to implement in a roll-your-own-solution. Down the road, the company expects to develop addition applications as well, says CIO Haskin.

"There are a bunch of applications that we are considering internally," he says. "The question becomes, does it make more sense to put it here (inside the company) or put it on Force.com."

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