Making Hosted CRM a Force to Be Reckoned With courts enterprise developers with sforce initiative

On a balance sheet, outsourced CRM looks like a can’t-miss proposition. In practice, however, making hosted CRM work has bedeviled a number of potential adopters, largely as a result of the same integration issues that typically sabotage conventional implementations.

Last week, Inc. unveiled a new program—dubbed sforce—that purports to address the issue.

Through partnerships with major vendors, such as Borland Software Corp., BEA Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Sun Microsystems Inc.—sforce will allow enterprise developers to exploit their preferred development tools and architectures to integrate’s CRM stack with their own internal applications.

"We're building and delivering tools and services to allow companies to create their own utilities," said CEO Marc Benioff during a gala launch event in New York.

In addition to the low cost of entry, which involves no initial capital investment, CRM service providers such as NetLedger Inc.,, and Salesnet have typically claimed faster implementations and improved ease of use—two important concerns in a market plagued by implementation delays and lackluster end-user adoption rates.

However, some adopters have discovered that the integration facilities offered by hosted CRM providers are inadequate or simply too complex.

“A lot of the pain that [hosted CRM vendors have] had is the lack of ability for integration and customization. They’ve taken baby steps for solving these problems, but when you’re talking about CRM, you’re talking about one-off customizations that a lot of companies might have, and really they’re very personal and aren’t exactly portable,” explains Sheryl Kingstone, a program manager with consultancy Yankee Group.

Evolutionary Step, for example, supports an API (called XML-RPC) to which its customers can program to facilitate integration between their own back-end systems and the CRM stack. The problem, company representatives concede, is that XML-RPC is designed primarily for use by organizations with significant in-house development expertise.

Sforce changes all of that. Rather than programming to an abstruse API, Microsoft shops, for example, can exploit the Visual Studio .NET development environment—and choose from among several different programming languages—to build applications or Web services components that exploit sforce to integrate with the CRM stack. Ditto for BEA, Borland, and Sun shops: Enterprise developers can use BEA Systems’ WebLogic Workshop, Borland's Jbuilder, and Sun’s Sun ONE Studio tools to program for the sforce framework.

“By having these Web services, you can write against these services in a very dynamic way, a platform-agnostic way,” indicates Viktor Grabner, general manager of .NET development with Microsoft. “Anyone would be able to use our tools to program against these services and build applications that integrate their own enterprise, or write custom applications.”

Grabner says that Microsoft hasn’t developed any sforce-specific plug-ins for Visual Studio .NET, although he says that at least one Microsoft partner has built Visual Studio .NET custom controls to “make the ability to program against Sforce’s Web services [framework] very, very easy and straightforward.”

With sforce, says Yankee Group’s Kingstone, has taken a page from enterprise applications giants such as Siebel Systems Inc. and SAP America Inc., both of which have introduced developer-oriented application integration strategies. Siebel announced its Universal Application Network in April 2002; SAP, its NetWeaver framework in November of the same year.

The difference, she suggests, is that sforce is available at a much lower cost and—as presented by and its partners, at least—doesn’t involve any additional software.

A Work in Progress

From a partner perspective, sforce is a low-maintenance affair. Sun, for example, has developed a plug-in for its Sun ONE Studio IDE to support and enhance sforce-related development. In this regard, Stans Kleijnen, VP of market development engineering with sforce partner Sun, says that the success of the initiative is almost entirely dependent on’s ability to create a Web services framework rich enough to translate the IDE-independent promise of sforce into reality.

“I think that the sforce initiative is still a work in progress,” she comments. “Just to do the kind of plug-in that we’re working on, that’s not a lot of work. But from’s perspective, it’s very much the perspective that developers always have their own preferred IDEs that they want to work in, and the plug-in depends on what [ is] doing and what level they want to work.”

Yankee Group’s Kingstone agrees. “To a large extent, it is dependent on’s ability to execute on this [sforce Web services framework],” she acknowledges. “But I think it’s a great first step. With a lot of the companies opening up to Web services standards, you have XML, you have J2EE, and it’s really heading to where you can create hosted apps and integrate them easier.”

A Little Help from Its Friends

Sforce could also get a boost from a number of related partner initiatives. At the sforce launch event, Sun, for example, demonstrated a solution based on its Sun ONE Portal Server and Sun Identity Server that exploits sforce Web services to expose the CRM stack in the context of the portal. Sun’s identity server facilitates authentication, single-sign on, and access to CRM resources. “You have all the exposure to all of the opportunities on their web site, and then they automatically get the integration with network identity,” comments Kleijnen.

Also last week, announced pre-configured accounting adapters for Intuit QuickBooks and Microsoft Business Solutions-Great Plains accounting software. The adapters were built by partner eBridge Software Inc. and exploit a point-and-click installation process to link CRM applications with both accounting packages. claims more than 7,000 customers and 90,000 end users for its hosted CRM solutions. On Tuesday, no less than 25 vendors announced plans to use sforce to develop hosted services—including heavyweights such as AvantGo, Business Objects SA, and Data Junction Inc.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.