CEO Benioff talks growth, analytics, and Microsoft

The outspoken CEO discusses the vendor's evolution, its acquisition strategy, its competition, and the road ahead has come a long way from its beginnings as an on-demand CRM (customer relationship management) vendor.

While has been in the application development business for years through its platform, in the past year that strategy has been super-charged through a string of acquisitions and product launches like, a stand-alone service that exposes's database infrastructure for use by developers.

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It's also closing in on $2 billion in annual revenue and 100,000 customers.

All of this had CEO Marc Benioff in a characteristically confident and outspoken mood during a recent exclusive interview with IDG News Service.

Benioff discussed's recent acquisitions, revealed where the company has no current plans to invest, and launched a broadside at Microsoft, which has gotten into the cloud development business with its Azure platform.

Why are you buying so many companies? How will you avoid losing focus?

Our job is to continue to add value to our product lines in areas where we see things changing very rapidly. We bought a company called Heroku, which offers Ruby on Rails. Ruby on Rails is the fastest growing language on the Web today. A slightly different example: We bought a company, Radian6, that has customers like Dell or Gatorade that have defined the next generation of marketing through social media monitoring. Radian6 is social media analytics. It's all the analytics on what's happening in the public social networks. It's the easiest way to listen to customers. That's an area we have to be in.

This is new technology that we have acquired to extend our platform and move more rapidly. A lot of enterprise software companies have been acquiring old companies and consolidating maintenance revenue streams. That's not what we're doing.

Last year, you formed a partnership with VMWare around VMForce, which is a development platform for Java applications. You have some tools that let Microsoft .Net developers interact with, but how about a cloud with strong .Net support, like Microsoft's own Windows Azure?

I think that .Net is mostly dying off as a model. Most customers are abandoning it. It's a wholesale abandonment of .Net. The problem is that its too proprietary. The cloud is the future. [Microsoft is] obviously a laggard. Now they're saying the cloud is important. But [Azure] has not been a successful effort so far. What are the transaction numbers for Azure this quarter? Microsoft won't talk about what their numbers are, because they're immaterial. They might as well rename Azure "Azune." It's basically having the same level of success. [Microsoft could not immediately provide comment.]

Data integration has become one of the most important topics in cloud computing, as customers begin to adopt on-demand software and seek to tie it into their existing systems. Will buy a data-integration vendor?

We work with all [data integration vendors]. If you look at Cast Iron, or Boomi, we're their number-one integration point. Both of them built their business on our platform. We're not in the integration business. We have a robust set of APIs based on the REST protocols that give integration vendors the ability to push and pull data from our system. We can't be in every business. In that business, we decided to partner. We're doing a lot of things already. We are only doing the things that are most important to us.

Some believe remains weak in certain technical areas, such as analytics, even with the Radian6 acquisition.

We are the largest provider of cloud-based analytics in the world. Our customers have built thousands and thousands of dashboards [with]. Nobody dominates our customers like we do when it comes to providing them with dashboards and analytics in real time. We have a huge new analytics engine in the most recent release.

As to you invest in Java and Ruby on Rails development, will you continue devoting the same amount of energy to your core Apex language for developing apps?

We're a big, fast-growing company, so we're able to provide resources to all of these languages. We manage more than 1 billion lines of Apex code for our customers. The vast majority of database transactions [on] were completed using Apex. We're giving [customers] Java and Ruby on Rails as options, but some customers are still going to want to use Apex.

Your database infrastructure is based in part on Oracle's database, along with a range of other technologies you've developed on your own. Are you committed long-term to the data store architecture you have now, given the growing number of alternatives in the market?

We have the largest, most active cloud database in the world, with a half billion transactions a day. We now have 12-and-a-half years of operating experience. We've been able to build something that is spectacular, and that nobody has been able to match in terms of scale. We have hundreds of thousands of users on one application. It's never been done before.

You're in so many technology areas now. Has there ever been consideration of changing the company's name, given that it so closely associates you with just CRM?

The brand has a lot of equity in the market. Customers like it. We'll sometimes ask customers whether we should change our name. Almost universally, they say no. We're very customer-driven in that way. We are always asking for comments from customers. I try as an executive to let the customers guide me as much as possible. That has worked out really well. On the name, that's exactly how I handle that.

You've said retains a startup culture despite the fact it now has 6,000 employees. As you grow further, how will you avoid the type of bureaucracy that has plagued some large software vendors, slowing down product development?

We've built a culture of openness and transparency. We're also using our [social networking] tool, Chatter. We use that extensively internally. Chatter has reduced our email by 40 percent internally. I think tools like Chatter and enterprise social networking will reduce that friction.

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

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.