Salesforce aims to be one-stop shop for cloud development

Salesforce.com's purchase of Ruby platform vendor Heroku gives it yet another option for cloud-based applications

Salesforce.com's announcement Wednesday of plans to buy Heroku, as well as a rebranding of its array of services, makes it clear the vendor wants to be a one-stop shop for developing applications in the cloud.

Heroku is a PaaS (platform-as-a-service) offering for software written in the popular Ruby language. It underpins more than 100,000 applications. Salesforce.com's move is a play for "the hearts and minds of next-generation application developers," particularly of social and mobile software, said Ray Wang, CEO and principal analyst of Constellation Research.

The Heroku technology will join Salesforce.com's core Force.com platform, which has primarily been used by ISVs (independent software vendors) and companies to build transactional business applications, as well as the recently announced VMForce partnership with VMware for enterprise Java development. Salesforce.com also has technologies for developing websites and departmental applications, and announced a new service, Database.com, on Tuesday.

Once the deal closes next year, Heroku will be the newest member of the company's cluster of development technologies, which as of Wednesday has been dubbed Force.com 2.

Heroku deploys Ruby applications inside "dynos," each of which run independently on its grid. Dynos encapsulate the application logic, development framework, middleware, application server, virtual machine and other layers. "The number of dynos running for a given app directly affects the maximum concurrency and therefore the performance of that app," Heroku's website states. New dynos can be fired up in less than two seconds in most cases, it adds.

Like other PaaS offerings, Heroku uses metered pricing.

"Some developers complain that Heroku is expensive, but it's a get-what-you-pay-for situation," said Redmonk analyst Michael Coté. "You can get cheaper, but it's just bare-cloud infrastructure with no real services or middleware included."

The Heroku announcement gives new meaning to Salesforce.com's unveiling of Database.com, which enables customers to use its underlying database infrastructure.

Salesforce.com will no doubt sell Heroku users on using Database.com as an information store in support of their applications. But Heroku already offers a PostgreSQL-based database service.

"It's really important to us and Salesforce.com that things don't change for our installed base," said Heroku cofounder James Lindenbaum in a phone interview. "We absolutely intend to continue to run it. What we want to do is provide more choice over time. It will be one of the choices."

There are also no plans for Heroku to leave its current home at Amazon Web Services, according to Lindenbaum. "We absolutely want to stay there. We will likely add additional data centers and providers over time, but we'll make those decisions based on customer use cases," he said.

Salesforce.com's cofounder and executive vice president of technology, Parker Harris, also stressed that the deal will be nondisruptive to current Heroku customers. "Our goal is to simply take the Heroku vision and mission and to fuel and accelerate its success. Heroku will continue to be Heroku. And more," he wrote in a blog post.

There are clear parallels between the companies, Harris added. "Their strong beliefs on multi-tenancy and the manifest destiny of cloud computing are very similar to ours. And their almost religious commitment to doing it smart and doing it right was apparent to me in the way they architected their service. But most of all, it was Heroku's dedication to their developers -- the customers of their service -- that impressed me."

There are some cultural differences for the companies to reconcile, but they don't outweigh the potential positives, Coté said.

"The Heroku base is a bit more technical than the obviously more business application-centric Salesforce base. But Salesforce is clearly wanting to get into more general application development, and Heroku would fit well with that," he said. "Heroku has actually innovated a pretty nice [application lifecycle management] system for cloud-based Ruby applications and if they extend it to work with Salesforce's APIs, databases, and the Force.com platform, it should be good for both communities."

But Salesforce.com is clearly looking beyond application development in order to gain relevance with enterprises, Coté said, noting Wednesday's announcement of RemedyForce, an IT service management application done in partnership with BMC.

"Salesforce is trying to build out a larger footprint in the IT world by carving out what 'the IT department' looks like in a cloud/SaaS world," Coté said.

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff is expected to discuss the Heroku acquisition further during a keynote Wednesday at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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