Salesforce, Benioff Must Beware Oracle's Embrace

This new relationship holds much promise for Oracle, not so much for Salesforce. It reminds me of Captain Ahab's relationship with the great whale.
As Salesforce CRM caught on, the company became a supplier of a modern, online platform of application services that often ate into traditional areas of packaged software. Benioff was defiant as this transition took place, often staging guerrilla marketing amidst larger SAP and Oracle events and countering the control impulses of his former mentor. When his own speech at Oracle OpenWorld was cancelled at the last minute in 2011, he staged an outsider's address at the nearby W Hotel in San Francisco, using the drama to pump up his remarks.

So how is the partnership faring after the June 25 announcement? Two days later, Ellison and Benioff held a joint teleconference to talk about it, and the nice big brother must have been the one present. Ellison was repeatedly deferential, almost comically so: "Marc, I'll turn this over to you to start off."

Instead of calling out Ellison's past false statements, Benioff said, "I couldn't be more thrilled to make this announcement today with you, Larry. The Oracle database has been a big part of this company's infrastructure since it started 14 years ago. It was absolutely the best decision we've ever made to go with Oracle."

Ellison returned the compliments, calling Salesforce "the largest cloud company in the world," and saying how much the customers of both companies would benefit as the two worked more closely together. He said the two companies would work together to integrate their applications, since customers demanded it, although getting the applications to exchange data is a relatively simple thing to accomplish. Application integration, in that sense, warrants a date night but not a perpetual partnership announcement.

When Wells Fargo's Jason Maynard asked about the new spirit of co-opetition, Benioff asked Ellison if he wanted to go first, and his response, "No, Marc, it's only good when you go first," drew stifled chortles from the listening crowd, which was used to the previous episodic friction.

Benioff should have been wary, but instead Ellison's deference set him off on another enthusiastic round. "I want to thank Larry, because Oracle has always been there for us whenever we needed them, and they are a true partner."

And, "After so many decades of leading Oracle, Larry's leadership has really ensured that Oracle is the best database product in the world ... There's no company I'd rather partner with than Oracle," Benioff said.

To use the language of soul mates with someone who once attempted to sabotage your company takes a special kind of character. For better or worse, Benioff is that kind of character.

There was a widespread appreciation in 2009-2010 that both companies were posturing and maneuvering. It's unlikely any Oracle customers cut their ties to Salesforce based solely on Ellison's say-so. But Ellison's criticism was aimed squarely at the integrity of what Salesforce was doing in online applications. It seemed at the time an attempt not only to hold back Salesforce but to hold back the changes that were coming with the cloud.

If Salesforce thrived, it meant that a lot of enterprise software was going to move into the cloud and be accessed there, with each application serving tens of thousands of users. Oracle at the time was amassing the world's largest collection of previous-generation software, geared to serve hundreds or maybe a few thousand users at a time. In a depressed economy, those companies' stock prices were cheap and Oracle had the money to spend. But if the customers' notion of a desirable, long-range architecture was shifting, then any price paid might prove to be high.

In the cloud, applications scale out on commodity hardware; at Oracle, they scale up, at best, on hardware appliances labeled "cloud." In the cloud they keep running if the hardware fails; at Oracle, they fail if very much of the hardware fails. In the cloud, the initial per-hour cost is low, building up only as the cloud user's hours build, hopefully on a successful business. With Oracle, the cloud comes in highly engineered boxes crammed with CPUs, disks and software license fees.

The tension between Oracle's preferred path and the way the cloud is going won't be played out in one or two Oracle OpenWorlds or one or two new partnerships. The cloud still threatens to undercut Oracle's business. I can see how standing alongside Salesforce, Microsoft, Netsuite and other cloud vendors is favorable to Oracle. It moves Oracle a little closer to where the customers are.

But I don't see what Salesforce gained. It's been the thought leader; now it's taking on more of a retro look. It's turned away from the ServiceNows and Workdays and SugarCRMs, which are showing the value of multi-tenant applications in new forms, and embracing the partner who most wished to slow Salesforce's advance.

Benioff was at his best when he was thumbing his nose at the establishment and daring business to embrace a brave new world of software-as-a-service. At the time he took his no-software stand, it was a gutsy call. If it was just an act, it was an act that he succeeded in pulling off. Instead of prosecuting that position to its logical conclusion, Benioff, with this partnership, has turned in the opposite direction.

This relationship holds much promise for Oracle, not so much for Salesforce. It reminds me of Captain Ahab's relationship with the great whale. He chased and chased it, until he got close enough to act on his longing to subdue it. At that moment, it turned on him and stove in his boats. Warning to pursuers of whales everywhere: If you're rushing into a leviathan's embrace, make sure it's not going to sink you.