Salesforce.com: rethinking the database

While attending Fortune's Brainstorm event, several of us took the opportunity to sit down with Parker Harris, Salesforce.com co-founder and EVP technology.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

While attending Fortune's Brainstorm event, several of us took the opportunity to sit down with Parker Harris, Salesforce.com co-founder and EVP technology. To say it was our first outing as Irregulars with the company, Parker was remarkably open and congenial, often straying into territory that would otherwise drive hyper controlling PR's nuts. We seem to have that effect on some people.

Much of the conversation centered around cost management and the general direction Salesforce.com would like to take. Top of Parker's mind is the vexed question of how you bake grown up analytics into an on-demand solution. Vinnie Mirchandani notes that:

So, last week in our conversation with Parker Harris of salesforce, the question came up – why would customers pay its storage costs compared to rates amazon and now Microsoft with Azure are bringing to market? Will it need to rethink its EMC infrastructure? From there the conversation moved to whether it needed the Oracle DBMS – whether it could afford to keep passing along those costs when vendors like Zoho and RightNow aggressively use open source components.

This was the opportunity for Salesforce.com to put its cost cards on the table. Parker talked about enterprise needs for high grade security, using that as the reason for justifying continuance of EMC's premium services. He has a point but one that must come under increasing scrutiny  when, as Vinnie observes, companies like Zoho seem perfectly happy to compete and win with lower cost components. You can of course argue that Zoho is not exactly tackling business critical transactions and therefore doesn't need to observe the requirements of a robust infrastructure demanded by Fortune 500 CIOs. That would however be a distraction from the direction companies like Zoho are traveling.

Parker then drifted into talking about what might happen with the database, clearly a significant direct cost to the company which is basically hefting a gargantuan Oracle DB. Parker said the company is looking at a range of possibilities in the future, including the use of columnar databases for analytics. I'm sure that Vishal Sikka, SAP's CTO will be nodding vigorously at this idea. Perhaps, as Vinnie suggests, they should share a latte?

In a recent Enterprise Geeks video, Dan McWeeney postulated about using such types of DB for transaction systems. The theory runs that columnar will provide significant performance and scaling enhancements. That has yet to be proven in this scale of application but Parker is not prepared to rule anything out. Can you for instance imagine Salesforce.com taking the really radical step and moving to say: LucidDB? In after hours follow up, Salesforce.com declined to add more color - understandable though frustrating to both sides.

Despite its 10 year heritage, Salesforce.com is still 'young' enough to take radical and game shifting steps that would shake the market while allowing it cost leverage to either improve its bottom line and/or share its largesse with customers. Listening to Parker, I got the sense he favors helping customers - something you don't often hear from senior enterprise executives. Of course he could have been gently setting the scene for the next round of price negotiations with Larry Ellison. If the latter is true then who better than Vinnie to take the call?

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