Update: Salesforce.com offers to 'unlock' SAP's core

New services are aimed at marrying the Force.com platform with SAP's back-end systems to create 'social enterprises'

Salesforce.com is rolling out a set of consulting and integration services aimed at SAP customers who want to build "social enterprises" with Salesforce.com's Force.com platform.

"Our customers have spoken loud and clear," Salesforce.com said in a blog post Thursday. "They want to transform the way they collaborate, communicate, and share information with both customers and employees. They want to shift IT from being a cost center to a catalyst for innovation and a driver of business growth."

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But these customers are challenged by SAP's back end, "which houses their most critical data but limits data accessibility," Salesforce.com claimed.

The new offerings will allow customers to integrate Force.com on top of their core SAP systems, allowing them to use data now "trapped" in "custom social and mobile cloud apps," the blog post added.

Salesforce.com will provide interested companies with a half-day evaluation of their environments at no charge, and develop a project plan that determines the proper use cases for Force.com. The vendor has also lined up a number of data-integration vendors to work on the projects, including IBM and Informatica.

An SAP executive downplayed the significance of the announcement.

"Salesforce.com offers a small sliver of what SAP can do, and customers recognize this," said Vishal Sikka, SAP executive board member, technology and innovation, in a statement.

"A true social enterprise strategy is about empowering people to work, think and interact in new ways, tackle business challenges in new ways, and connect more directly with each other and with the data that matters," he said. "This is only truly possible with deep integration of front-end applications that empower the user with core back-end business processes and data. Only SAP brings this expertise, and it is in every aspect of our product portfolio."

For some time now, Salesforce.com and its outspoken CEO Marc Benioff have been pushing the "social enterprise" vision. Companies can achieve this through a three-step process, Benioff said in a speech earlier this year. The first move is to connect with public social sites such as LinkedIn, followed up by the creation of a private social network. Lastly, enterprise applications should get a social networking injection, he said at the time.

Salesforce.com's primary social tool is Chatter, which offers real-time collaboration capabilities. It has also acquired companies such as Radian6, which has technologies customers can use to monitor the social web.

SAP has no full-fledged social networking software of its own, but has developed the StreamWork collaboration application. It also has a partnership with enterprise social networking vendor Jive Software, and along with Microsoft created Duet, which links SAP applications to SharePoint.

Salesforce.com's announcement drew a skeptical response from analyst Kelly Craft, a consultant who specializes in collaboration platform implementations.

"In theory, this is really big news for the industry. But a closer look at the details makes this seem like not much more than an effort to drum up integration business for integration partners," Craft wrote in a blog post. "Forgive my cynicism, but I'm hard-pressed to imagine that customer's will get much more than a bare-bones template 'project plan' after a half day review. Seems like another effort where the promise surpasses the practicalities."

Salesforce.com will also have to contend with SAP's own ongoing efforts to ease access to back-end data, such as the River platform, although that effort is aimed at the development of discrete and lightweight business applications rather than a broad social networking strategy.

It remains to be seen whether Salesforce.com rolls out a similar offer for Oracle customers. Such an item would directly clash with Oracle's own Social Network service, which was announced earlier this month and is scheduled to be available sometime next year.

Still, the move makes sense, Forrester Research analyst China Martens said via email. "I guess with SAP still shaping its overall social strategy pillar, Salesforce.com senses a gap to go after. SAP's focus to date has been StreamWork, collaboration specifically tied to decision support and linked to business intelligence, so a different focus from Salesforce.com's Chatter."

The announcement could be "part and parcel of Salesforce.com's push to use Chatter and/or its social enterprise message as the Trojan Horse to get into enterprises it's previously not been able to get into with its CRM or with Force.com," she added. "Once in the door, then the vendor would hope to expand the enterprise's use of its software."

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

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