Database.com is partly powered by Oracle's flagship database, which has long been used by Salesforce.com. But the service contains dozens of other supporting technologies that constitute Salesforce.com's cloud infrastructure, which now supports some 87,000 customers around the world, said Eric Stahl, senior director of product marketing.
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Developers will be able to use the new service as a back end for any type of application, with support for all languages and devices, according to Salesforce.com.
Those applications can also run anywhere, whether on Salesforce.com's own Force.com platform, Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud, or other services, thanks to APIs (application programming interfaces) that call into Database.com.
In a demonstration, Stahl ran through a number of use cases, such as an application written in PHP (hypertext preprocessor) running on Amazon Web Services, while surfacing data through Facebook and calling into a Database.com instance for information. "We're not talking about simple apps with a form on the front end," he said. "These are the kind of apps people want to build."
One Database.com instance, such as for a recruitment database, could serve many endpoints, from a corporate website to a mobile device application, Stahl said.
While the service could cater to such emerging application architectures, Salesforce.com expects to sell it based on time-tested, enterprise-friendly features such as SSL encryption, single sign-on and advanced security. Customers will also benefit from the system's automatic scalability, tuning, backups, and upgrades.
In addition, Salesforce.com will offer some additional features on top of the core service, such as a pre-built "social data model" with aspects for user profiles, status updates, feeds and other entities. Along with a set of "social APIs," developers will be able to create applications that work with the model.
Customers also get an administrative console as well as ETL (extract, transform and load) tools for putting data into the service. There will be language-specific toolkits for Java, .Net, Ruby, and PHP; mobile toolkits for iPhone, iPad and Android; and platform tools for Google AppEngine, Google Data, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Facebook and Twitter.
A basic version allowing up to three users, 100,000 records and 50,000 transactions per month will be available at no charge. Costs rise $10 per month for each chunk of 100,000 records and another $10 per month for each additional set of 150,000 transactions.
An additional set of optional Enterprise Services, which include user identity, authentication and row-level security, will cost $10 per application end-user per month.
Salesforce.com's database uses a different architecture than most application vendors, said analyst Curt Monash of Monash Research.
"It doesn't break things up into thousands of tables. It's more focused on programming straight to the business object," he said. "You avoid some of the advantages and some of the hassles of typical relational programming."
Given that network latency is one of the key determiners of performance, Database.com is probably not suitable for the highest-end transaction processing needs, he said.
"On the other hand, when you're building applications where any given user does a few transactions per hour, then it probably doesn't matter," Monash added. "This is not an architecture for extreme transaction volumes, but most applications don't have extreme volumes."
It is not clear how far into next year Database.com will become generally available. Salesforce.com is still working on the details of provisioning individual databases, for one, said Stahl. In addition, as with other products, it will conduct a private beta period first, he said.
Partners are already lining up to support the launch. Progress Software and Informatica, to name two, are pushing products for helping customers get data into Database.com.
The new service could prove to be a solid revenue generator for Salesforce.com, said 451 Group analyst China Martens in an email. "It does seem to open up Salesforce.com's world more to being a multiple apps player, but also seems to continue that uneasy divide of it being both a CRM [customer relationship management] provider and an infrastructure player."
It's not clear how this move will be received by customers, who may prefer to see Salesforce.com "pay renewed attention to its core CRM offering," Martens added.
For his part, Stahl said customers who are aware of Database.com are "chomping at the bit" to try it.
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff is expected to discuss the announcement, as well as other product news, during a keynote address later Tuesday.
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com.