FAQ: What to expect at Salesforce.com's Dreamforce

One of the biggest enterprise software and cloud computing shows this year gets underway in San Francisco

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff is known as a big thinker and talker, and now he's hoping to be one of Silicon Valley's biggest party hosts, with more than 42,000 people registered so far for the company's annual Dreamforce event this week in San Francisco.

Those numbers arguably have been boosted by offers of free admission to the show floor and Benioff's keynote, but nonetheless it's set to be a huge crowd within striking distance of rival Oracle's OpenWorld conference.

The anticipated crowd for Dreamforce also underscores the fact that Salesforce.com has become much more than an on-demand CRM (customer relationship management) software vendor, given its forays into cloud-based application development, social networking and collaboration, and raw infrastructure provisioning through the new Database.com service. It has also closed in on US$2 billion in annual revenue and acquired more than 90,000 customers.

But all that growth means many more questions for its user base and partners to mull over, and hopefully get answers to, at Dreamforce.

"Salesforce has about five major product lines at this point, and because this is a show for the whole company they need to make sure they're making some kind of statement of direction for each of the product lines," said analyst Denis Pombriant, CEO of Beagle Research.

Here's a look at some of the areas Salesforce.com is likely to cover during the show, which features an opening keynote by Benioff on Wednesday.

What's this "social enterprise" thing Salesforce.com is talking about?

Benioff's favorite topic of late is what he calls "the social enterprise." He's been taking the mantra on the road, delivering details with characteristic gusto to regional crowds of Salesforce.com customers and it will be the centerpiece marketing message at Dreamforce.

The gauzy-sounding theme can be boiled down to a few components: The mining and monitoring of social networking sites by companies in order to learn more about customers than their names and e-mail addresses; internal collaboration among company workers through tools like Salesforce.com's Chatter service; and the creation of social networks for customers, as well as ones focused on specific products.

The first pillar got a boost through Salesforce.com's acquisition of Radian6 earlier this year. Like other so-called "listening platform" vendors, Radian6's software can track mentions of products or companies from a wide variety of social sites and then apply an array of analytics to the information.

"[Salesforce.com] will want to tell customers and shareholders how [Radian6] fits into the product line and affects business processes for customers," Pombriant said.

Expect plenty of talk about Chatter as well, both in terms of its uptake among customers as well as new features.

But there are questions to raise about Chatter's adoption, according to Forrester Research analyst China Martens. While many tens of thousands of companies are using the software, according to Salesforce.com, "how many are using it aggressively?" she said.

Emergency medicine staffing firm Schumacher Group has rolled out Chatter, albeit not pervasively, said Doug Menefee, CIO at the Lafayette, Louisiana, company. "We're working on a more regimented strategy to build adoption."

Right now, Schumacher Group uses Chatter for "sidebar conversations" in departmental meetings. It also has helped bridge gaps between employees who work around the world, and provided the company with a conduit for recognizing employees that do exceptional work, he said.

Is Salesforce going to finally make a strong move into marketing automation?

One of the favorite points of speculation around Salesforce.com for some observers is whether it will ever leap fully into the marketing automation market. While perhaps an arcane discussion for some, it speaks to overarching questions about Salesforce.com's long-term growth plans, since to date it has largely left marketing software up to partners such as Marketo and Eloqua.

An aggressive move by Salesforce.com in this direction, such as via acquisition, should give partners in a variety of product areas pause.

If Salesforce.com wanted to make its intentions known, Dreamforce represents a prime opportunity.

What is Salesforce.com going to do about its analytics capabilities?

Schumacher Group is a big believer in Salesforce.com's technology, having built dozens of custom applications with its Force.com development platform

But Salesforce.com has work to do in key areas, such as analytics, Menefee said.

Specifically, Menefee wants Salesforce.com to act more like "an enterprise data warehouse out in the cloud," holding information from outside sources as well as the core system, he said.

In addition, "they've got to improve on the graphical representation of analytic data," Menefee said. Salesforce.com has made some good steps in this direction in recent years, and there are a number of third-party options for reporting tools, "but it'd be nice for it to be in a single suite," he said.

Radian6 certainly provides Salesforce.com with a load of analytic firepower, but it remains to be seen how the technology will be woven into Force.com or its core applications.

What is the future of Force.com?

Salesforce.com has made quite a big deal of its development platform over the years, but the technology is getting pretty creaky in the view of analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research.

"Force.com is not easy to build on. Most people are just doing integration into Salesforce.com," he said. "Customers should be asking a lot of questions about Force.com and what's going to be done to revive it."

Salesforce.com didn't make the picture much clearer for users with its recent purchase of Heroku, a cloud application development platform with support for multiple languages, including Ruby on Rails and Java, noted Forrester Research's Martens. "When do you use Force.com and when do you use Heroku? I wonder if they're going to address that this time around [at Dreamforce]."

Salesforce.com has also been "utterly quiet" for some time about VMForce, its collaboration with VMware on a Java development platform that works with Force.com, Martens said.

Overall, there seems to be some clarification in order for customers on Salesforce.com's intentions for these various platforms.

Force.com has certainly improved over time, Menefee said. "I've definitely seen it get more sophisticated."

But he'd like to see some improvements, namely more prebuilt connectors to other cloud services, as the company is a big believer in cloud computing. More connectors out-of-the-box from Salesforce would reduce the need to rely on third-party cloud integrators such as Cast Iron Systems, he said.

What's the next step for Database.com and Salesforce.com's reliance on Oracle?

Salesforce is also expected to give an update on Database.com, a service announced late last year that will give developers the ability to create applications on top of the company's database infrastructure. The Database.com stack includes Oracle's database along with a range of other homegrown technologies.

Speculation has gone on for some time that Salesforce will eventually wean itself off Oracle, but so far that hasn't happened.

Salesforce.com originally built around Oracle because they "felt the marketing need to demonstrate they had something with proven reliability under the covers," said analyst Curt Monash of Monash Research.

Dreamforce may provide Salesforce.com with the opportunity to show off a few early adopters of the Database.com service.

What's the status of joint ventures such as FinancialForce.com?

It will be interesting to see how much time Salesforce.com spends discussing lower-profile outlying efforts such as FinancialForce.com, its partnership with Unit 4 Agresso on a cloud-based financials application.

FinancialForce.com is gaining some traction, analyst Wang said. But it has a difficult road ahead of it given the competition from vendors like NetSuite, Intacct and Workday.

The amount of news -- or lack thereof -- Salesforce.com shares about FinancialForce.com at the show will be telling either way.

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