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5/25/2007
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Redefining The Function Of A Web Site

Courting developers, Facebook and Salesforce.com offer interfaces, resources for the next generation of Web services

Web companies want to morph into something far more ambitious: vast software ecosystems where thousands of outside developers write applications that tie into their wares. Salesforce.com is applying the model pioneered by Amazon.com and eBay to its software services. Now, it's Google's turn.

Google this week hosts its first developers conference, expecting more than 1,000 developers at a sold-out San Jose Convention Center and 5,000 at 10 other locations around the world. The agenda includes presentations on Google's APIs and developer tools, plus sessions on map mashups, distributed computing using Ajax and XML, and custom search engines.

The Google forum follows Salesforce's first developers conference, where the company last week introduced the equivalent of a complete development platform for Web services. Salesforce is proposing that its online application infrastructure serve as the launchpad for companies' service-oriented architectures. Salesforce has created an online operating system of sorts to manage application deployment and services to handle linkages to other Web services.

Applications built with Saleforce's Apex language will run in a Salesforce data center. Even the development process will take place on Salesforce servers, shared with hundreds or possibly thousands of other developers. "You as an enterprise programmer develop code yourself, but you have Salesforce run and maintain it," says Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst with Nucleus Research.

Apex, available now in a developer preview version, is about 80% Java, with the remainder being proprietary extensions to get apps to run in an online mode. Salesforce execs once described Apex as a language for customizing existing Salesforce applications. At last week's conference in Santa Clara, Calif., they illustrated how Apex can be teamed with online resources already in place, such as the Salesforce database service, to build new applications. Apex can also attach to services already on the Web, such as services that estimate the shipping expense between two points, return the credit rating of a new customer, or verify a shipping address.

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Another radical notion: A company doesn't need to be a paying Salesforce customer to use Apex--composite apps built with Apex can stand alone. And Salesforce will be responsible for ensuring that its development environment continues to provide access to databases and outside services and remains compatible with other software.

SOA consultant David Linthicum says the Salesforce technology will let developers do a lot of the things they do now with the "big stack players"--BEA's WebLogic, IBM's WebSphere, Oracle's middleware. "It's a game-changing technology," he says.

CRMfusion, a six-employee software company near Toronto, built a prototype of its latest application, DupesBlocker, in less than three weeks using the Salesforce technology, says CEO Glenn Nelson. CRMfusion wanted DupesBlocker, which searches for duplicates in a company's ordering, billing, and fulfillment systems, to be able to find and send alerts on duplicates in real time, rather than running in the background in batch mode. Getting more real-time information into employees' hands is a key goal of many SOA projects. With an online application that meshes easily with the data in the Salesforce database service, DupesBlocker works by using triggers--embedded logic that fires when a certain condition is met--to notify managers when a duplicate is found.

The simplicity of coding such an application and running it on the Salesforce platform "saves us a lot of code development, test, and quality assurance time," Nelson says. The biggest advantage of Salesforce's approach is its scalability, he adds. Without the Salesforce platform behind it, CRMfusion would have to monitor application usage constantly and build out its application availability by adding servers in its own data center. Instead, it relies on Salesforce's scalable data center resources.

Nelson isn't yet selling DupesBlocker because Salesforce hasn't yet launched Apex 1.0 and related services. Salesforce SOA capabilities are slated for August, Apex 1.0 for December.

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