The eBay of enterprise apps? has launched what it says is a platform for customers to tailor-make their own business applications. Elizabeth Montalbano reports

Despite a recent outage of his company’s hosted CRM service, chief executive Marc Benioff says the company has made significant infrastructure investments to support its most ambitious release yet.

IT has been updated with AppExchange, a web services-based platform that allows software companies to offer their applications as hosted services integrated directly into

According to Benioff, AppExchange will provide an internet-based operating system to enable what he calls “the business web”. The company modelled its new offering on the consumer web, where companies such as Yahoo, Google and eBay offer web-based services that have become essential to the everyday life of consumers, he said at Salesforce’s Winter ’06 conference earlier this month.

Companies should be able to control the content of the applications they buy and not have to depend on software vendors to offer releases with features that are controlled by those vendors and not customers, he says. Having an internet-based platform on which they can build and offer applications will enable that situation, he says.

“Why can’t there be an eBay of enterprise applications? Why can’t we have an iTunes music store of enterprise applications and bring back the services we need to run our business?” he said during his presentation. “If it’s so easy for us to get anything we want as consumers, how can we get that for our customers as well? That’s really how we came up with the concept of ... the business web.”

Winter ’06 is a culmination of six months of investment by Salesforce to rearchitect its software, as well as to fortify its back-end hardware infrastructure. To prepare for the release the company established two new datacentres — one on the East Coast at a location it declines to disclose and one on the West Coast in San Jose, California. Currently, the San Jose datacentre is up and running, while the East Coast one is on standby.

Next month, Benioff says, the East Coast datacentre will mirror, or replicate, all of the data running on the infrastructure in the West Coast facility. If there is an outage or a problem in one centre, the other can immediately take over in a disaster-recovery scenario that will ensure users’ data is protected and the service stays up and running, he says.

The December outage was a temporary glitch that has been fixed, he says. The outage lasted all day for some customers and drew criticism that the company can’t scale its infrastructure to keep up with its growth. Benioff says he is confident that Salesforce’s new back-end infrastructure will be strong enough to support the myriad hosted applications the company plans to offer through AppExchange.

“That’s why we’ve made huge investments in all this new technology,” he says. “We’ve wholesale replaced our architecture, our hardware, our software, to get us to the next level [of the service].”

That next level is to enable developers and customers, through AppExchange, to create custom, composite applications from various applications — what Salesforce calls application “mash ups”, all on a web-based platform that has tools and APIs built in.

This access to unlimited applications, all available through subscription fees paid for a service or a set of services over the web, is the Holy Grail that web services technology has been promising for years.

Companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, in different ways, also plan to offer hosted internet-based services that open up the possibilities for application development and more customer choice.

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