For some time now, it’s been my impression of the CRM market that all, or at least most, of the good ideas have been taken. It’s been a long time since we saw a new systemic solution that approaches front office business. It’s even been a long time since we saw a major innovation at the department level.
CRM itself was a systemic innovation in the last decade of the last century. Cloud-based CRM was the innovation of the new millennium and since then, marketing automation would count as a departmental innovation. You can also look at analytics as a systemic innovation because although it straddles departments, it has become a department itself.
This is not a bad thing, just the opposite. As CRM has been built-out it has opened new market niches which has maximized the number of solutions and, more importantly, it has made all of them affordable to just about any business. As I’ve said before, cloud computing is the commoditization of IT. It has made information processing both simple for a lay person to use and so affordable that all those who want it can have it.
CRM is far from done as an approach to business and as an economic driver, but we must acknowledge we’re at a turning point. Behind the scenes the major vendors, among whom are Salesforce, Oracle, and Microsoft, have gone a long way toward consolidating the industry by platform and from here that will be the dividing line.
So far this spring I’ve attended two conferences that illustrate my point, SuiteWorld and Financial Force’s analyst day. Each company has financials and ERP solutions that address the needs of small and medium and in some cases larger businesses. Each is deployed on a specific platform: NetSuite on its own which it announced is moving aggressively toward the Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and Salesforce whose solution encompasses development platform and infrastructure.
While it’s quite possible that many customers will continue using hybrid solutions such as NetSuite for back office operations and Salesforce in the front office, it’s already easy to see that situation morphing. Oracle has for many years used the logic of running a suite of related software over an integrated solution made up of best of breed apps. It is continuing this logical progression with NetSuite both on its own and as a member of the Oracle family.
Salesforce is using a derivative of this logic too. While Salesforce is and will likely always be a front office company, its powerful platform and AppExchange gives partners the ability to build completely compatible applications that help customers achieve suite status. After all, that’s the logic of having a platform to start with. A platform supplies a consistent set of programming tools, interfaces, objects, data structures and more—standards—so that apps built on it can interoperate. It’s the same logic as building a hardware bus so that manufacturers can build to common standards. It’s popular because it works.
So, the play as I see it for any software companies not named Oracle, Salesforce or a small group of others, is to pick a platform, become intimately involved with it, and pursue the surrounding ecosystem as your market.
Some vendors have begun working with two or more platforms and that’s fine if they have the resources, but I see that as a short-term gambit designed to see which platform vendor is the best partner.
All of this is vitally important. As I mentioned last time, the meme making the rounds is that it’s easier to start than grow a company, especially in tech. I can see this and deciding on a platform and an ecosystem to work in is one of those things that can help reduce overhead and enable a business to better focus on the things that really matter for growth, like markets and customers.
My two bits
CRM has been a wild ride for two decades and the ride continues. At this stage it’s important not to get sucked in to the latest discussions of digital disruption, IoT, analytics or anything else that looks bright and shiny. They’re all important as secondary considerations but I think the most important thing, and in some ways the least glamorous, to concentrate on is what vendor and which platform you want to work with over the next decade and beyond.
Markets converge. Fifteen years ago, few vendors had complete CRM suites and now they all do. Today we’re looking at far more complex and sophisticated front office applications as vendors take on vertical market apps. These apps combine back office data, front office processes, intelligence and machine learning and highly specialized subsystems for everything from manufacturing to healthcare. In this new environment who has time for platform incompatibilities?
Oracle is in a legitimate exponential growth phase and not for the first time in its long career. Like a startup it is growing much faster than the organic growth rate of the economy or its primary market because it has some new products that are highly desirable including cloud offerings and a unique fully autonomous database. It is also growing quarter by quarter and year over year—this is not a one-time thing. But unlike a typical startup that must claw and fight for every new customer, Oracle has the opportunity to sell its new products into an existing customer base that is hungry for improvements in their price-performance ratios.
Yesterday co-CEO’s Safra Catz and Mark Hurd plus Chairman and CTO Larry Ellison broke down the numbers for the just completed quarter and they were impressive with most of the growth coming from cloud computing including infrastructure, applications and platform services.
Total cloud and conventional software revenues were $8 billion, and Catz gave a blizzard of other positive numbers including,
Cloud staff revenue for the quarter was $1.2 billion, up 21% on a GAAP basis from last year in constant currency with — on non GAAP basis with Fusion Cloud revenues up 52% in constant currency. Cloud PaaS and IaaS revenues for the quarter were $416 million, up 24% from last year in constant currency. Cloud PaaS and IaaS revenue, excluding legacy posting services, saw growth of 49% in constant currency and 56% in U.S dollars. As legacy hosting services become smaller part of total PaaS and IaaS, the underlying growth of PaaS and next generation IaaS will be more visible.
Here are my observations.
First, only about 15 percent of the customer base has even begun moving to the cloud products meaning that more good news will likely be coming in future quarters and for some time. Much of the momentum comes from net new sales.
Second, the revenue gains are likely to accelerate as the company builds out its infrastructure support. Oracle announced earlier this year a drive to deploy xxx new data centers to support its Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) initiative. Without those data centers being deployed and ubiquitous it can’t sell much infrastructure though even there it generated $416 million last quarter gaining 24 percent year over year.
But more is to come, and, now, infrastructure is a potential throttle. For instance, as the company will soon be able to service more customers with the same hardware or as Hurd put it,
As we fully deploy database multi-tenancy in our staff, let’s say. We double our capacity without spending one penny on hardware. We can help twice as many customers, twice as many transactions, twice as many users without spending one dollar.
Third, the new edition of the core database product, which is fully autonomous, is now generally available offering a level of efficiency and security unparalleled in the industry. On the call Ellison said there’s more to come.
Over the next few months, we expect to deliver autonomous analytics, autonomous mobility, autonomous application development and autonomous integration services.
If anything, Ellison may be underselling the benefits of the autonomous database when he talks about the labor-saving aspects as money savers as when he said,
Our highly automated suite of autonomous PaaS services reduces cost by reducing human labor and improves reliability and security by reducing human error.
For enterprise users, labor is cheap and although reducing human error is important the speed with which the autonomous database acts to self-correct may be the more significant benefit. Ellison revealed at OpenWorld that his customers can take upwards of 13 months to install database patches leaving their systems unnecessarily exposed for that time. The autonomous database self-patches meaning that users can install fixes much faster. Almost any cost associated with upgrading to the new database when compared to reputational hits and law suits over compromised data are insignificant in comparison.
Fourth Oracle is buying back shares and has a war chest of $70 billion. In the last quarter Catz said the company bought back $4 billion in shares, a process that is ongoing. The implication is that revenue and earnings numbers that are measured on a per share basis will likely improve simply because there are fewer shares outstanding.
Also, with so much cash on hand Oracle can pay for important things like further IaaS deployment and marketing to further push its products into the marketplace.
The notable difference between Oracle and a startup is that the company can afford to be its own venture capitalist. Another difference is that in addition to being able to attract net new customers, it has a huge installed base to bring current. They’ve previously said the process could take 10 years or more so it is still early days.
Unlike many other players in the market, Oracle has seen the need for greater security measures to combat the threats in the world today. Oracle is the logical player to deal with security since so many of the world’s applications are based on its technology infrastructure.
It will take some time before the technology diffuses through the industry and IT becomes a more secure environment. But it won’t take ten years. Plenty of companies will need to upgrade their applications independently of what Oracle does now that new tools are available. As it makes this turn to cloud computing Oracle is laying the foundations for a global information utility that can address today’s challenges.
But Oracle can’t do the job alone. Current news demonstrates that the Internet and social networks are no better at security than a screen door against a winter gale. The information utility will need more encryption and professionalization of its user class. In addition to having proficiency with the technology, users need to be easily identified, perhaps through license numbers, and certified in the ethical use of the technology.
You might not realize it but a plumber has to get a permit before working on your natural gas feed. It’s not an onerous process if the individual can demonstrate (via his or her license) the basic competence to do the job. We’re getting to that point in IT right now.
Announcements may be playing the role usually reserved for M&A activity in the CRM world right now. Generally a company purchases another when it wants to capture the benefits of another business’ R&D or established market base. But at the moment it appears that the desirable partners are too big to swallow and the result is more partnering between the big guys and the really big guys. Salesforce has been pursuing this strategy for most of the last year with Amazon, Google, and IBM. This says a lot about the state of the marketplace on several fronts.
First Salesforce and Amazon announced a partnership in which Amazon and its AWS infrastructure service would become Salesforce’s strategic infrastructure partner when Salesforce absolutely had to deploy a data center in a foreign land.
This makes perfect sense. As I have often said, it makes no business sense to build (in this case a datacenter) when you can purchase the solution at a reasonable price on the open market. As a competitive issue, Salesforce’s choice of Amazon is a direct challenge to Oracle because it offers a safe haven enabling Salesforce to diversify its partner portfolio while keeping Oracle and Microsoft at arms length. Given the rumors of salesforce being acquired by a big tech firm over the last few years, this seems a good way to help preserve its independence.
Much the same can be said of the alliance with Google. This is primarily a play for more SMB business and it’s a good one. Salesforce and Google announced their partnership around G Suite, Google’s free office apps. A while ago Salesforce and Microsoft created an integration with Outlook effectively making Outlook another UI for Salesforce. This parallels Microsoft’s own integration with its CRM and Outlook. So this partly neutralizes Outlook as a differentiator in any CRM decision.
Google integration gives Salesforce access to all those G Suite users who need CRM, especially in the SMB space. It also gives Salesforce another way to compete against Microsoft CRM. But, of course, they didn’t stop there. Salesforce also now has an integration with Google Hangouts too, an effective counter to Skype which is now owned by Microsoft.
Away from the SMB space in the Enterprise market Salesforce also forged a relationship with Google Analytics. Not that they need more analytics but the two partners have developed plausible processes that use Google Analytics to surface macro trends and Salesforce Einstein to go the last mile, a model that works with IBM too.
Last week Salesforce and IBM got closer with Salesforce naming IBM a preferred cloud services provider and IBM calling Salesforce its preferred customer engagement platform for sales and service. The agreement leverages IBM’s Watson analytics and its cloud as well as Salesforce Quip (more office software) and Service Cloud Einstein.
In all of this we can see that Salesforce is working to maintain its independence by linking with anything that can enhance its CRM and make it less desirable as an acquisition target. But of greater importance, it’s these relationships and others like them that will help Salesforce reach its goal of $20 billion in revenues in a few years. When your revenue needs are this big, you need to leverage the market penetration of similar companies. And while all of the companies named are bigger than Salesforce, they each need the bragging rights of working with the most popular CRM in the world.
Another question in all this is what’s happening with M&A activity, which seems to lull while partnerships blossom. The merger market is notorious for running hot and cold and right now it seems tepid, like there’s more opportunity for large companies like Salesforce crafting relationships with bigger partners. It’s not clear if this means there are few attractive acquisitions out there or simply that the times require different approaches to the market.
More than once in talks since Dreamforce in November Marc Benioff has used the logic, my enemy’s enemy is my friend. This logic is being played out in the partnerships his company is spawning. On one level it’s just smart business but in the back of my mind, I see the information utility of the 21st century forming. It will resemble the current electric utility in that no single provider will dominate and a high degree of interoperability will be needed. Standards like 120 volt and 60 Hertz electricity are what give us the impression of a continental electric utility grid but in reality, the grid is made up of smaller vendors adhering to the standards.
Likewise there’s no single vendor capable of dominating the information utility market and standards will be vital. That’s why it’s so important when a company like Salesforce announces partnerships. These incremental agreements have more significance that the press releases might allude to. They are steps on the road to something bigger.
Oracle’s race to the cloud has offered multiple successes to its investors and some disappointment as well. No transition of this magnitude can be expected to run like clockwork but the difference between revenues for Oracle’s SaaS apps for last quarter, $1.1 billion, and those for its cloud infrastructure, IaaS, at $396 million, should at least get you thinking.
There’s a good explanation for this and it’s surprising that the company hasn’t done more to provide guidance to its financial analysts but then again, the purpose of reporting your finances is just that. There’s no room for anything that can look like an excuse. That’s too bad because it can lead people to wrong conclusions.
I spent a day at Oracle last week receiving a briefing on the company’s roadmap for the year ahead. While some of the information was presented under nondisclosure, I can say that the briefing ran the gamut and went into areas that I am not expert at such as serverless apps, bare metal servers, and the new autonomous database. But I am coming up to speed as fast as I can.
The company’s cloud architecture and IaaS offering gave me one surprise. Oracle intends to roll out 13 distinct regions for IaaS connected by a very high-speed backbone. Each region is highly modularized with triple redundancy and can easily scale as demand increases. All of this is very important because, I believe, this is not simply about cloud computing but about another disruptive innovation we will all face in the next few years.
The disruption is the formation of an information utility and it’s all but certain that no single corporate entity will own all of it. As big as Oracle’s plans are, Salesforce has similar ideas and while we’re at it so do Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Amazon, and a number of hosting services too numerous to mention. Yes, there will be consolidation and those too numerous vendors will likely be scooped up first.
But back to Oracle—$396 million is a lot of money but small change compared to its SaaS number and small compared with the company’s aspirations. The logical conclusion that many finance people drew from that number is that Oracle has a “problem” or that it’s not executing well in PaaS and IaaS, but really? Not exactly.
According to Oracle President of Product Development, Thomas Kurian, who led off the analyst briefing, only 3 of the 13 regions have been deployed so far. More will hit their markets this year but the rollout takes time and we’ll still be talking about it next year.
Not having the regions up and running means that in some strategic places, the company doesn’t have IaaS to sell. So the $396 million is a look into a still very much expanding world. Just for fun you could say that 3 of 13 is just under a quarter of the deployment. If the other regions were running as well as the three in place the IaaS and PaaS numbers might easily be four times the reported revenue number. It’s unclear if that’s good or not since we don’t know a lot such as capacity and utilization of the existing regions, but still…
So for now, the revenue picture remains lumpy but now we have more explanation and color for the results. Hopefully this also gives financial analysts something to consider as they try to figure out what the numbers mean to investors. The rest of the market seems to expect a bright future for Oracle as its stock continues to do well despite the lumpy earnings.
There’s also discussion about renewed competition in the database market circulating after a story in The Information suggested that companies like Amazon and Salesforce were building competitive database products and would depart Oracle in the near future. I don’t agree. If for nothing else, building a database is a big effort and one that detracts mightily from a company’s primary business interests. It is dilutive of effort and cannibalistic of resources. For these reasons it should only be taken on as a last resort. That’s the way any business should look at any effort to self-source rather than go to the marketplace for needed resources.
On top of that I spoke with Parker Harris CTO and co-founder of Salesforce recently and when asked about the story he said, “We have a good relationship with Oracle and we use a ton of it. We are not getting rid of the Oracle database. We are working on technologies that add capabilities around the edges, like sandboxes. We will have SQL Server and Oracle for a long time.”
No surprises there. It’s been true for a long time that in these big markets sometimes we compete and sometimes we cooperate. In the era of the Information Utility I expect a lot more co-opetition.