to PaaS for the future
Force.com attracts eager Denver developers
emember when Salesforce.com was a plain old online sales force automation company? Well, it’s not your father’s CRM anymore.
Since its birth in 1999 “in a small San Francisco apartment” (as they like to say on the company website), the company has mushroomed into a $3.8 billion cloud-based behemoth. And its tentacles reach into an abundance of business-oriented product spaces, from customer management to customer service, marketing and campaign management.
The company today is also decidedly in the clouds, and they make no bones about saying so. Its marquee products are branded clearly with the online paradigm in mind – Sales Cloud, Service Cloud and Marketing Cloud (not to mention the more niche-oriented Government Cloud, which may be well-positioned to reach legislators and bureaucrats whose heads are in the same place).
One of Salesforce’s most ambitious ventures though, is its foray into PaaS – Platform as a Service.
The company officially launched its AppExchange and development platform – Force.com – in 2006. Seven years later, the AppExchange app store is teeming with more than 1,850 applications developed by thousands of developers aiming to paste special-use features atop the Salesforce environment. Salesforce app development, in fact, has become an industry in its own right.
At a recent meeting of Denver’s “All Things Cloud” Meetup group, more than 25 cloud-dedicated developers came to hear Salesforce evangelist John Henning talk in depth about AppExchange and how to use its platform tools to produce apps.
Henning, who joined Salesforce in 2009, works out of Denver as an Independent Software Vendor Technology Evangelist. That’s a fancy way of saying he works closely with prospective Salesforce developers and partners to produce successful applications. As a Force.com certified advanced developer, he advises Salesforce developers and conducts technical reviews to ensure a solid outcome.
According to Henning, the AppExchange has so far racked up 1.8 million installs, generating more than $800 million in revenue for developers. A few examples of popular specialized apps:
- Xactly Incent Express: Incentive Compensation & Sales Performance Management, by Xactly Corp., an app that manages incentive compensation
- Dealmaker Smart Opportunity Manager, by The TAS Group, an app that helps to qualify opportunities and offers advice on how to win
- DocuSign Electronic Signatures, by DocuSign, Inc., an eSignature solution
AppExchange reflects a firm commitment that Salesforce has made to the PaaS development model. Betting heavily on the future of cloud-based applications, the company’s Force.com initiative offers a multi-layered path for aspiring developers.
At the simplest level is Visualforce, a built-in feature available to any and all Salesforce users. Visualforce allows users to create their own customized pages in the Salesforce environment, using a tag-based markup language similar to HTML. According to Salesforce, many millions of custom pages have been created with Visualforce since its introduction.
For the more advanced, Force.com offers a specialized programming language called Apex, which can be used to interact with the Salesforce database and allows developers to write more sophisticated add-on programs. It is with Apex and other tools that traditional Salesforce apps are created and later made available on AppExchange.
Traditional Salesforce apps are designed to act as “plugins” in the Salesforce environment. Users access these apps through menu choices in the normal Salesforce user interface. However, for the brave and hearty, Salesforce offers a complete OEM program, in which developers can use the Force.com tools to create self-standing applications based on the Salesforce platform and underlying engine.
This, Henning says, is where the rubber meets the road … or shall we say, the computer meets the cloud (groans permitted here). With its OEM program, Salesforce is essentially licensing its technology and providing a cloud environment in which you can develop whatever application you like.
PaaS has become a big business and it’s getting bigger. According to the Gartner research firm, global revenue for platform as a service will grow consistently to reach $2.9 billion by 2016, up from $900 million in 2011.
In broad terms, PaaS is a model for cloud development that provides a computing platform and a solution stack as a service. The developer creates the software using tools and libraries from the provider; the provider provides the networks, servers, storage, and other services, including deployment and configuration settings in some cases.
The PaaS model is an outgrowth of Software as a Service (SaaS), a software distribution model in which hosted software applications are made available to customers over the Internet. Salesforce, with its cloud-based customer management system, was one of the early pioneers in that arena.
Today, the company faces some formidable competitors – including Google, Amazon, Microsoft Azure and a host of smaller companies seeking a piece of PaaS. But Henning says Salesforce is well prepared to be a leader in the field.
According to Salesforce figures, there were 310,000 Force.com developers who produced 185,000 custom applications built on the Force.com platform as of 2010, the latest annual stats reported on the company website. Those numbers are likely higher today, but even a few years ago, “726+ million lines of Force.com (Apex) code” is pretty impressive.
For Henning, one of the most compelling reasons to build on the Force.com platform is the security of developing on a trustworthy infrastructure. Force.com, he says, is a mature platform that is fully certified and completely reliable.
For more information on the Salesforce development platform, you can contact Henning at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if he greets you with “may the Force.com be with you,” just smile politely and move on.