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Salesforce.com’s cloud-based database enters the proving grounds

Mark Brunelli

Salesforce.com generated a great deal of media coverage when it announced plans to release Database.com, a fully functioning cloud-based database, sometime next year, but it will take

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more than headlines to win the business of some IT professionals.

While Salesforce.com has a proven track record in customer relationship management (CRM), IT industry analysts and end users say the company needs to demonstrate high levels of stability, reliability and cost-effectiveness if it wants Database.com to be successful against stiff competition from Microsoft and others.

But even that may not be enough to pique the interest of technology workers like Dathan Pattishall, the chief architect at RockYou Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based developer of games and advertising products for social media. Pattishall said he has no interest in Salesforce.com’s cloud-based database technology and the veteran database administrator (DBA) doesn’t expect that stance to change anytime soon.

“I have the ability to build a cloud-based solution myself [that is] much cheaper, much more reliable and in my control,” Pattishall said. “I have yet to see any sort of real-world [cloud-based database] solution that [operates] at a relatively low cost without a bunch of tie-ins to various tools and an excess amount of overhead that I would have to do personally to get it to work.”

Salesforce.com revealed plans to unleash Database.com at its annual Dreamforce user group meeting last week in San Francisco. Company officials said the new cloud-based database management system (DBMS) essentially consists of the same Oracle database that the company uses for its hosted CRM services, but with a software-based wrapper on top of it that provides additional management and security features as well as multitenancy.

Salesforce.com says Database.com will support multiple development languages and is geared toward organizations that want to create new applications for social media, mobile devices and other scenarios. The technology is currently not being marketed as a replacement for existing in-house DBMS implementations from the likes of Oracle and IBM.

“We see cloud databases as a massive market opportunity that will power the shift to enterprise applications that are natively cloud, mobile and social,” Salesforce.com chairman Marc Benioff said in statement.

Understanding the cloud-based database marketplace

The benefits of cloud computing and cloud-based databases can include reduced costs and advanced automation, experts say. But organizations interested in the technology need to weigh those benefits against privacy, security and latency concerns.

IT industry analysts said that it’s also a good idea to get a strong handle on the often confusing cloud-based data management market before moving forward with any investment decisions.

When Database.com becomes commercially available next year, it will join Microsoft SQL Azure as one of only two product offerings that can truly be called cloud-enabled DBMSs, according to Donald Feinberg, a vice president and information infrastructure analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. Gartner defines the phrase “cloud-enabled DBMS” as a hosted DBMS cloud service that offers multitenant elasticity and is used as a shared resource by independent user organizations or applications.

“The next question people ask is, ‘What about BigTable and SimpleDB from Google and from Amazon?’” Feinberg said. “But those are relaxed-consistency files systems and they are not DBMSs. Now, both companies would argue with me, but you cannot do complex transactions with either of those systems.”

Feinberg added that Amazon RDS is another product that is frequently mistaken for a true, cloud-enabled DBMS. “Amazon RDS is basically an implementation of MySQL on EC2,” he said. “It is not a cloud service, it’s not elastic and it’s not multitenanted.”

Beware of latency and read the fine print

Organizations considering a cloud-based database should also be aware of latency issues that can arise as a result of connecting applications to a DBMS over the Internet, according to experts.

Most organizations expect slight delays in performance when running applications on mobile devices such as iPads or smartphones, but that same amount of latency could be disturbing when sitting at a regular old desktop station in an office cubicle.

“Is the latency going to be so bad that organizations can’t use it? I doubt it,” Feinberg said. “But it may be surprising to people.”

Companies that decide to move forward with an investment in Database.com should also be aware of Salesforce.com’s historical approach to service-level agreements (SLAs). Feinberg said that organizations using Force.com -- Salesforce.com’s cloud-based application development platform -- do not receive SLAs for performance.

“I also believe that most of their contracts [including those governing the use of Salesforce.com and Force.com] are described as monthly charges, but you sign a one-year contract and there is no out clause,” he said. “So, those are contractual issues that we would warn people just to watch out for.”

Will cloud-based database automation lead to fewer DBA jobs?

Whenever a new technology comes along that increases levels of DBMS automation, some DBAs worry that their jobs will eventually go the way of the milkman. But many DBAs will view the increased automation associated with cloud-based DBMSs as more of a blessing than a curse, according to Noel Yuhanna, a data management expert and analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

“DBAs are already doing more than what they should be doing,” Yuhanna said. “[Cloud-based databases] in fact will help them put more focus on mission-critical databases that need more attention.”