Salesforce.com downtime comes at worst time

A $50 million initiative planned for imminent release would offer a mirrored data center and prevent service interruptions.

In many ways, the interruption of service for some Salesforce.com customers this month couldn't have come at a

worse time for the San Francisco-based company.

Not only did the outage provide its competitors with plenty of public relations ammunition heading into the new year, but it also occurred shortly before the launch of Mirrorforce, a massive Salesforce.com initiative announced by CEO Marc Benioff in August. Mirrorforce, a $50 million investment planned for the upcoming Winter '06 release, will offer data mirroring between production and backup between three North American facilities.

The good news for Salesforce.com, said one analyst, is that Tuesday's three-hour outage was probably something Salesforce.com customers won't see again soon.

This is probably the last time for a long while that we'll see this kind of outage, barring some catastrophe," said Denis Pombriant, managing principal with Stoughton, Mass.-based Beagle Research Group. "There are probably some unhappy customers. A company like Salesforce.com can take a bullet like this once, but they can't afford to have a string of these."

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On Tuesday Dec. 21, some Salesforce.com customers experienced intermittent access to the application, between roughly 9:30 a.m. and 12:41 p.m. EST and 2 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. EST. The root cause, according to Salesforce.com, was an error in the database cluster. The problem was addressed with the database vendor; Salesforce.com did not name the vendor or release the number of customers affected.

Salesforce.com, which provides hosted CRM, houses the application and customers' data in its own data center, which customers access via a Web browser and are charged for on a subscription, per user model.

Hosted CRM has overcome much of the initial apprehension on the part of buyers nervous about security, downtime and another company holding their important data. But as Salesforce.com tries to move upstream in the market, targeting enterprise companies, the news provided Salesforce.com's competitors with an early Christmas gift. They flooded reporter's inboxes with both news of the outage and the superiority of their own products. NetSuite Inc., a hosted vendor in San Mateo, Calif., pointed to the  money-back guarantee of 99.5% uptime for subscribers, which it launched last year. Boston-based Salesnet Inc., another hosted CRM provider, highlighted its customer communication and disaster recovery center in a separate geographic region.

"From what I've seen, I think the competitors blew the opportunity," Pombriant said. "They used it as an opportunity to strut their stuff and say how great they are. It would have been smart for at least one of them to take the high road and do something like offer emergency service using their product for free for example."

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