VMforce.com redefines the PaaS landscape

Salesforce.com, creator of the archetypal proprietary cloud platform, today seized the initiative and redrew the entire PaaS landscape around open-source software stacks.

I must confess that Salesforce.com has surprised me today with the launch of VMforce.com — and in a good way. For a while, I've been thinking that open source platforms were the chink in the armor of proprietary PaaS providers. Little did I imagine that Salesforce.com, creator of the archetypal proprietary cloud platform, would itself seize the initiative and redraw the entire PaaS landscape in the way that it has today. Evidently I've underestimated the resourcefulness of the company and the imagination of its VP product management, my good friend and fellow Enterprise Irregular Anshu Sharma, who has been responsible for bringing VMforce.com to fruition. [More disclosure: Salesforce.com is a recent client but we have no projects under way at present].

To really understand the full extent of what Salesforce.com has done today, you have to look at how VMware is positioning the announcement. You won't get the full story from Salesforce.com because an important element is the defeat of its hitherto wholly proprietary Force.com platform strategy — but what a way to snatch mainstream acceptance from the jaws of distrust! Here's how VMware's CTO Steve Herrod explains his company's 'open PaaS' strategy:

"One big challenge with today's PaaS offerings is that they are all fairly unique and incompatible with one another and with the way that enterprises run their applications. Once you select a PaaS offering, it is easy to become locked into their particular offering, unable to easily move your applications and data to another PaaS provider or back into your own datacenter should the need arise ... Our initial open PaaS offerings focus on a particularly important choice… choice as to where you deploy and run your applications."

Seen in that context, VMforce.com is to SpringSource what Heroku is to Ruby on Rails; a high-quality, multi-tenant, operational instance of an open-source platform. These platforms are popular with developers because of the apparent lack of lock-in. In principle, you always have the option of moving to another provider or to an in-house stack. In practice, it may not be so easy; but the principle is what matters. At a stroke, Salesforce.com has opened up its proprietary platform to the mainstream market of an estimated two million Java developers who put their trust in the open-source Spring framework.

The cleverness doesn't end there, of course. VMforce.com isn't just an undifferentiated instance of SpringSource. It has a smorgasbord of useful platform resources that massively short-cut the development effort when building PaaS applications; from data to social media, from identity management to application administration, from search and reporting to mobile device support. Every one of these conveniences is another tendril that binds an implementation to Salesforce.com's operational platform, each one a further line of essential life support that increases the complexity and risk should you ever at any time dare to contemplate moving off VMforce.com to some other platform.

Back in January, I wrote about the somewhat surprising alliance between Microsoft Azure and the Intuit Partner Platform. That tie-up highlighted the huge importance in cloud platforms of service delivery capabilities:

"... a platform's support for all the components that go with the as-a-service business model, including provisioning, pay-as-you-go pricing and billing, service level monitoring and so on. Conventional software platforms have no conception of these types of capability but they're absolutely fundamental to delivering cloud services and SaaS applications."

IPP (which as I mentioned at the time, funded the research for an analyst report I wrote last October, Redefining software platforms), brings a raft of services to Azure that are especially useful to Microsoft's partner channel. VMforce.com infuses SpringSource with a set of services that meets the needs of enterprise computing environments. This is a landmark event because it fuses the enterprise credibility of the two platforms — the conventional software platform of Java and the operational PaaS infrastructure of Force.com.

Just as PaaS redefines software platforms (for reasons that are explained in more detail in my analyst report and subsequent blog post), so VMforce.com now redefines the PaaS landscape — and heralds a huge shift in Salesforce.com's own PaaS strategy. It's no longer about battles between closed proprietary platforms. The battle now moves to two new fronts: between competing open source platforms to establish which of them become the mainstream cloud platform stacks; and between competing operational providers to define the dominant infrastructure frameworks. What impresses me most about today's announcements is that I had thought those battles would leave Salesforce.com at a disadvantage. Instead, the vendor has pre-empted the potential threat and seized the initiative to map out the lines of battle, bypassing most of its competitors, who are still arming themselves to fight a war that's no longer relevant.