Some build-or-buy decisions turn out to be no brainers. That has been the case for Facebook’s IT Business Applications group under the leadership of Force.com MVP Mike Leach. Leach oversees a talented group of developers who have redefined the possibilities for enterprise-quality IT applications built with Force.com. The group has created more than ten apps across Facebook’s lines of business. The group’s emphasis: high quality apps, delivered fast.
The group’s first Force.com app, which manages inventory flowing into the company’s data centers, set the standard. The group first put out a request for purchase for a custom IT tracking system for the company’s new data centers. But acting on a hunch, Leach’s team also built their own proof-of-concept prototype cloud app using Force.com. The results were so impressive that the team got the green light. The result: a handful of developers delivered a working system so quickly and successfully that it raised eyebrows.
“The advantages of the cloud were pivotal,” Leach said. “With Force.com, we didn’t have to buy servers. We didn’t have high administrative overhead. That enabled us to build rapidly and deploy rapidly.” Leach said that having some experienced Force.com developers on the team gave the project a running start. “They understood the advantages of the platform, and they jumped on it.”
Leach and his team have now used Force.com to produce at least a dozen internal applications. Some are part of a large initiative to integrate all business applications through an enterprise service bus that is helping Facebook’s IT infrastructure scale to accommodate the company’s hyper-growth.
Leach and his team rely on the same set of Force.com tools for both desktop and mobile application development, including Force.com’s code, programmable user interface, and Eclipse-based IDE. The group has also developed a framework, called JAWS (Just a Web Shell) for running Force.com web applications on iOS. Leach has made the framework available to other developers as a GitHub download.
Leach says Force.com is well-suited to meeting Facebook’s culture of fast innovation. “Facebook is itself a massively scaled cloud company, and that core competency meshes nicely with Force.com. When an application is needed, we can move fast—trying out an idea quickly to see whether it will work. Force.com also meets our need for global reach. Provisioning is ultimately a global requirement, and the Salesforce platform is accessible by our employees everywhere, whether that is Menlo Park, Dublin, Ireland, or anywhere else in the world.”
“We also need backwards compatibility, which happens automatically with the platform. Some IT shops paint themselves into a corner, applying a lot of customizations that later hinder them from going forward. With Force.com, we never worry about that. We assume that anything we do in the cloud will always work.”
Leach first began working with salesforce.com as a customer in 2002. After working with the Force.com SOAP API in 2004, he got hooked on Force.com development and the potential for running enterprise applications in the cloud. He became an AppExchange partner in 2006, and spent 4 years as a Salesforce ISV prior to joining Facebook. A member of the inaugural class of Force.com MVPs, Leach has been a guest speaker at Dreamforce and a recipient of the Developer Hero and Chatter Hackathon awards.
“Based on my experience as a Force.com MVP, I’d suggest that you will get as much out of the community as you give to it,” he said. “It’s important not just to consume information, but create it for the community. If you’re just getting started, I’d begin with the online documentation, which is some of the best I’ve ever seen. After that, find an area of interest and focus and start answering questions as you can on the community boards. That’s a great way to get known, and of course, a great way to learn.
“I also suggest that people start a blog and write about the topics they are passionate about. Blogs are another great way to communicate and learn: they are a community within the Force.com community.” Leach’s own wide-ranging blog, Embracing the Cloud, has entries on his participation at events, his group’s framework for running Force.com Web applications on iOS devices, ideas for using batch processes in with Apex code, and much more.
Leach is also a strong proponent of the IdeaExchange, which he sees as a democratizing force. “The community members I admire the most won’t just complain about an issue, but will be part of the solution by documenting their ideas on the IdeaExchange, then lobby for them by sharing links on the boards. Ultimately, the IdeaExchange is one of the best ways of communicating to salesforce.com the priorities and possible solutions from the Force.com community.”
Leach’s interest in cloud computing is wide ranging, including mobile in the enterprise and social commerce applications. In the developerforce community, Leach is best known for Chatter Bot, which took first place in the 2010 Chatter Developer Challenge. Chatter Bot is an early step in what Leach believes is the next major advancement in the cloud: the Internet of things. “What if the buildings you worked in could participate in Salesforce Chatter feeds?” Leach wrote on his blog. “What if the products you shipped could automatically create Cases in Salesforce when they needed servicing? More objects are becoming embedded with sensors and gaining the ability to communicate.” Force.com, he writes, provides an ideal platform for this vision, with data collected from sensors providing information about the physical world to custom objects.
Chatter Bot is an experimental prototype of this idea—a micro controller integrated with a facility management application, that uses sensors to detect motion and light. Sensor data is stored in the cloud as Salesforce Chatter, enabling the full breadth of Chatter features to be utilized for monitoring and managing assets. Considering the potential of this hardware/software application, the build cost is preposterously low: about $80. “Chatter Bot is an example of what’s possible today,” Leach said. “Longer term, the industry’s adoption of Internet Protocol version 6 [IPv6] will help make the Internet of Things a working reality. At that point, we’ll start to see IP addresses on everyday items—from chairs to computers—which will completely transform supply chain management.”
Leach also sees the Heroku cloud application platform becoming a part of the salesforce.com family as significant. “Facebook is now piloting some Heroku applications that leverage Force.com. Our goal is to put as much of our enterprise data as possible in the cloud, then be able to access that data from both mobile devices and custom Web applications. The mechanism will be transparent to our end users: they’ll see it not necessarily as a salesforce.com application, but simply as their database in the cloud.”