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VMForce: re-architecting Salesforce for the future

In between all the geek speak at today's VMForce event, see coverage from Larry Dignan and Sam Diaz, three questions kept creeping into my mind:How much?What does this means for other app vendors?

In between all the geek speak at today's VMForce event, see coverage from Larry Dignan and Sam Diaz, three questions kept creeping into my mind:

  1. How much?
  2. What does this means for other app vendors?
  3. What will developers make of it?

The answer to the 'how much' question is elusive. In conversation with Parker Harris, co-founder Salesforce.com and Rod Johnson, who leads VMWare's SpringSource unit the answer seems to be 'we're not sure,' despite assurances that VMForce will monetize its efforts. My view is it has to fall within what the uber geek community consider a sensible budget i.e. open-source, credit card or less cost. In a later conversation with Marc Benioff, CEO Salesforce.com I got a little closer to a definitive answer: "We'd like to get this as low cost as possible - maybe some will be free." The reality is we'll have to wait and see but don't be surprised if at least baseline functionality from VMForce is free. David Dobrin confirms the 'free' elements in his private circulation newsletter.

As to my second and third questions. Larry Dignan isn't sure whether this is a defensive or offensive play. I don't think that matters. To me, the money shot comes at the end where he says:

Simply put, the proof will be in the enterprise implementations going forward.

But I think we have to step back a bit and ask a more fundamental question. My experience among uber geeks is that they often gravitate towards open source but ultimately they want the best tools for the job. If that's VMForce then that's what they'll use. However, VMForce will have to fast track the building of a vibrant community of enthusiastic developers who find value they can't get elsewhere. You can argue that already exists among Java fans and SpringSource but we should remember VMForce represents a segment of the total developer community.

One of the ways Salesforce.com and VMWare can demonstrate commitment is by re-architecting Salesforce.com onto VMForce. While Harris and Johnson would not go that far, Benioff was not as coy: "We're re-architecting Salesforce.com onto VMForce," he said. The company won't throw any babies out with the existing bathwater but that's the bet he's placing as part of a larger Chatter/mobile play. This has implications elsewhere.

Both Oracle and SAP are substantial Java shops. There have been concerns among Java fans that somehow, Oracle would mess up the open source Java community. VMForce spikes that because if Oracle chooses to play fast and loose then VMForce could become a natural safe haven. SAP on the other hand has been conflicted over Java. Co-founder Hasso Plattner has said that he'd like to eliminate Java from SAP apps. That is neither realistic nor likely to happen. More recently, the company has been making fresh commitments to Java and Eclipse. Both SAP and VMForce/Salesforce.com like to talk about open-ness so this could present new opportunities for SAP developers to consider VMForce as a pathway to bringing cloud based apps into their environments where it makes sense to do so and where the VMForce platform provides what developers need.

Whichever way you look at it, VMForce has the potential to become a wedge by which Salesforce.com and FinancialForce drive adoption in businesses that might not require the functional weight of SAP/Oracle apps but need something that has development legs. I can see that proving compelling to those who look at cloud but worry there is not enough by way of customizing capability. I also see it as offering opportunity for much needed vertical market apps so that the market for cloud based applications can expand from its relatively limited footprint.

In the meantime, expect to hear a LOT more about VMForce and Chatter becoming the platforms through which Salesforce.com morphs into the almost-but-not-quite-neutral PaaS solution for upper mid sized companies. Where will you hear that? Again, in conversation with Benioff, he said the company is starting to become a media entity, hiring no more than maybe 10 journalist types to lead the company's messaging. It won't be independent in the strict sense of the word but Benioff has promised a light touch. If he keeps to his word and does not control the message to within an inch of its existence then Salesforce.com becomes a highly potent messaging force that will become a big part of driving adoption.

Disclosure: Salesforce.com funded my travel and hotel expenses for attending the VMForce event.