The Cloud Dream: Open database where server is cloud

It's been a few years now since Salesforce.com packed out a Sunnyvale hotel and introduced its Apex developer platform.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

It's been a few years now since Salesforce.com packed out a Sunnyvale hotel and introduced its Apex developer platform. That was the company's first move away from its Software as a Service roots, and one of the first appearances of what we'd now call Platform as a Service.

Over the years it gained features, and a new name. Applications built using Apex could be sold using Salesforce's AppExchange platform, and the company set up an incubator to support and encourage companies that wanted to become part of its ecosystem. Apex and the resulting Force.com were an important move for Salesforce, making it much more than just another cloud CRM vendor.

Salesforce isn't an application any more, even though many of its customers still treat it as such. Instead it's a platform, much like Microsoft's Azure and Google's AppEngine. Apex developers can quickly build and deploy applications, using a mix of database design tools and code that owes much to both to JavaScript and to SQL stored procedures, delivering them to the web and to mobile devices.

Today Salesforce.com today used CEO Marc Benioff's keynote at its Dreamforce user conference to unveil the next piece of its move from applicatiom to platform, spinning off its underlying database engine as a service in its own right, Database.com. If the name's familiar, that shouldn't be a surprise. The original Database.com was an early attempt by Benioff to deliver cloud services, way back when the original web bubble was flaming out…

Much of what Salesforce does is database, and its application platform is perhaps best thought of as an extremely large, cloud-scale database. If there's any surprise in the Database.com announcement, it isn't that Saleforce is doing it - it's that it's taken then so long.

Database.com joins the Force.com developer platform as part of Salesforce's transition from application to platform, using those 1500 machines that power Salesforce.com to deliver a separate set of APIs for the underlying data platform, along with a new management user interface with everything from entity diagram design tools to transaction monitors. It's what you'd expect from a cloud-hosted enterprise database platform.

The developer side of the story is most important, as Database.com's open APIs allow cloud or on-premises applications access to cloud hosted data, using familiar relational database and file storage techniques. Developers can use their usual application development tools and languages to work with Database.com, with support for SOAP connections for both Java and .NET. There's also support for web technologies, with REST-based APIs and a PHP developer toolkit. There's even already third party support, with the keynote showing off a JavaScript command line console that wouldn't look amiss on a DBA's desktop, ready for raw SQL access to the platform.

Salesforce.com's underlying features are still there in Database.com, so you can use it to store binary objects and unstructured data as well using the social data model that Salesforce developed for its Chatter communication tool. Applications using Database.com will be able to give records their own social graph, and can use them to provide real time status updates as part of a business intelligence solution. You'll also be able to take advantage of the Salesforce security model, giving applications a high level of granularity right from the start.

Separating its database from its application platform is a sensible move on the part of Salesforce.com - and it's also one that's long overdue. Taking the SQL route is an interesting approach as well, as it flies in the face of received wisdom that implies that No-SQL approaches like Google's Big Table are the best way to deliver data in the cloud. But there was a lot of push-back when Microsoft tried to go the No-SQL way with the early versions of SQL Server Azure, something that quickly led to the company returning to its SQL roots.

Salesforce.com is a database company at heart, and one that's built its success on SQL (in its various applications and in its platform tools, so it's not surprising that it's decided to take the SQL road from the off - and of course Microsoft's success with SQL Server Azure means that there is a market there, one that Salesforce wants a big piece of…


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