Salesforce and VMWare have big news today with the pre-announcement of VMForce. Inevitably it will be less big than the hype that’s sure to come, but that’s no knock on the platform, which looks pretty cool. Fellow Enterprise Irregular and Salesforce VP Anshu Sharma provides an excellent look at VMForce.
What is VMForce and how is it different from Force.com?
There is a lot to like about Force.com and a fair amount to dislike. Let’s start with Force.com’s proprietary not-quite-Java language. Suppose we could dump that language and write vanilla Java? Much better, and this is exactly what VMForce offers. Granted, you will need to use the Spring framework with your Java, but that’s not so bad. According to Larry Dignan and Sam Diaz, Spring is used with over half of all Enterprise Java projects and 95% of all bug fixes to Apache Tomcat. That’s some street cred for sure.
Okay, that eliminates the negative of the proprietary language, but where are the positives?
Simply put, there is a rich set of generic SaaS capabilities available to your application on this platform. Think about all the stuff that’s in Salesforce.com’s applications that isn’t specific to the application itself. These are capabilities any SaaS app would love to have on tap. They include:
Pretty potent stuff. The social features, reporting, integration, and business process management are areas that seem to be just beyond the reach of a lot of early SaaS apps. It requires a lot of effort to implement all that, and most companies just don’t get there for quite a while. I know these were areas that particularly distinguished my old company Helpstream against its competition. Being able to have them all in your offering because the platform provides them is worth quite a lot.
There is also a lot of talk about how you don’t have to set up the stack, but I frankly find that a lot less compelling than these powerful “instant features” for your program. The stack just isn’t that hard to manage any more. Select the right machine image and spin it up on EC2 and you’re done.
That’s all good to great. I’m not aware of another Platform that offers all those capabilities, and a lot of the proprietary drawbacks to Force.com have been greatly reduced, although make no mistake, there is still a lot to think about before diving into the platform without reservation. Force.com has had some adoption problems (I’m sure Salesforce would dispute that), and I have yet to meet a company that wholeheartedly embraced the platform rather than just trying to use it as an entre to the Salesforce ecosystem (aka customers and demand generation).
What are the caveats?
First, this is just an early glimpse. You can’t actually go try this thing out and pricing isn’t even being talked about until this year. Historically, pricing has been another Achilles Heel of the Force platform, although I know Anshu disagrees with me on that one. We got our Helpstream service to the point where it cost 5 cents per seat per year to deliver the service. Don’t be surprised if VMForce is a LOT more expensive than that. Second, ISV’s will also have to wonder whether Salesforce is friend or foe. At Helpstream, we finally got comfortable with the idea that they are a sort of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Their product organization viewed us as competitors, and would’ve been only to happy to wipe us off the face of the Earth. Meanwhile, we were getting around a hundred leads a month from being on the AppExchange and they were good quality leads. We were able to appear at Dreamforce, and it was a good venue for us.
But VMForce represents a much higher degree of collaboration. Take advantage of all those juicy services and it will be hard to back out of that platform, Java or no Java. There just isn’t anything else like it, and that’s the real distinction of VMForce.com. It’s a brilliant repackaging of some great functionality from the Salesforce apps as a platform. What remains is to see if Salesforce can behave itself and act like Switzerland the way a platform vendor is supposed to. And don’t overlook what kinds of data will now be completely beholden to that Swiss Data Bank. The heavy focus on Social will be very powerful. In the broadest sense, CRM is a system of record for what your customers and prospects are doing.
On balance, I think Salesforce has tee’d up a potential game changer for the SaaS platform world. Whether or not ISV’s get comfortable with the Swiss angle, Corporate IT should find a lot to like here from the get-go. VMForce also seems like a rich opportunity for the Salesforce ecosystem of SI’s and VAR’s to add value too. Salesforce has listened and learned and seems to be on the right track. I don’t see it as an Amazon killer, but rather as a welcome new addition to the Clouds that’s going to enable new things we haven’t seen before.
Two thumbs up for now and let’s see how things develop.