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Salesforce To Host Custom SOA-Building As Well As Applications Online

Salesforce wants customers to use its application infrastructure and Apex programming language to generate custom online SOA services.
Salesforce.com is marshalling its existing online services and Apex application language to provide online service-oriented architecture-enabling capabilities, chairman Marc Benioff told about 650 developers attending the company's developers conference Monday.

In the past, Salesforce has been content to supply its online sales force automation and CRM applications and give customers the means to customize them. Now Salesforce wants its growing customer base to make use of the broad application infrastructure and its Apex programming language to generate custom online SOA services as well.

Apex is a Java-like language -- Salesforce officials claim it will be 80% Java and 20% proprietary -- that will be used to build new or composite applications using Salesforce offerings as a base. In addition, an Apex application can tap Microsoft .Net, Adobe's Flex, PHP scripting language, or Ajax (JavaScript acting on dynamic HTML) for building the user interface. Apex will be available by the end of 2007, Benioff said in a keynote address.

In addition, Salesforce will offer SOAP and XML support in Apex so that any application built with it can be offered as a Web service. It will provide a workflow engine so that a new service can be coordinated to function between different users. And service designers will be able to rely on Saleforce's API that gives an Apex application access to existing Salesforce appications.

Jukka Valkonen, managing enterprise architect of Kaiser Permanente, a large California health insurer, said Saleforce's initiative may allow him to link what have been the two distinct businesses of Kaiser, offering a more direct delivery of health care as well as health care insurance.

Kaiser currently uses Salesforce to capture a minority of its overall insurance sales, those outside the state of California to brokers and wholesale distributors of health insurance. As it gains customers from these sources, their data is captured in Salesforce applications and could be useful in initiating health care services.

"If a woman has been signed up who is a diabetic, that tells us that we need to assign her an obstetrics/gynecologist, get her a pump and supply of insulin," said Valkonen. But with employers placing more of the expense of health insurance on the employee, the potential expense "is an inhibitor that might cause her to delay getting care."

Rather than wait until problems mount, Kaiser wants to use the patient data included in the application for insurance as a trigger for services "that get a new member engaged in the health care system." Treating known problems before they get bigger is a proven Kaiser strategy. An SOA approach could allow Kaiser's health plan branch of its business to feed information to the care delivery branch and enlist the patient in his or her own timely treatment through online services. Parker Harris, co-founder of Salesforce, said at a luncheon after Benioff's keynote that Salesforce customers will be able to use the Salesforce Database as a standard service on which to build SOA. The Salesforce database sits atop Oracle but supplies database services without requiring a database schema or other DBA-type designing. The database service will advise a developer if a schema is badly designed or if a query will have a negative impact on performance.

Glenn Wilson, CEO of CRMFusion, a Toronto startup, said his company was able to use a prerelease version of Apex to "prototype a new version of our on-demand application in less than three weeks." The application is an online service, BlockDupes, which searches out duplicates in Salesforce applications, such as double billings or double entries into accounts receivable.

CRMFusion is marketing its application through Salesforce's AppExchange, an online marketplace of third-party applications that work with the Salesforce suite.

"You can create any user interface, build any form, create any business logic you need" to generate an enterprise service, said Benioff. The service will run on Salesforce servers rather than an enterprise server, but it can be used to generate a mashup of Salesforce and Internet services, such as those available from Yahoo, FedEx, or Hoover's. And it can be tailored to the workflow and data of the enterprise, he noted. It's another way of leveraging the application infrastructure that Salesforce has built online, an infrastructure in which Salesforce has invested $100 million so others don't have to, Benioff said.