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Online auction firm taps Force.com to glue apps together

Online car auctioneer Openlane uses Force.com to glue together a mix of home-brew and store-bought applications.

An Arizona auction house has grown and prospered with the modern model of IT: outsource everything and glue it all together. That's nothing new. But Openlane's twist on how IT and business processes are normally approached is rather new. It is using cloud computing to glue together its in-house IT, rather than extending it or replacing it.

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Openlane, which deals more than $4 billion worth of used cars in wholesale lots per year, has 400 employees, and company executives said that the business has grown up around its homegrown online auction software, in-house SAP accounting tools and Salesforce.com for customer relationship management (CRM). For several years, it has used Force.com, Salesforce.com's Platform as a Service application development tool, as workers clamored for more capabilities.

"We represent and work with 25,000 unique dealerships," said Andrew Iorgulescu, co-founder and VP of business development, "and broker more than 300,000 cars a year, mostly in lots of used fleet vehicles." In an industry not exactly known for honesty and good business practices, Openlane needed good customer relations tools.

Iorgulescu said that Openlane needed iron-clad ways to monitor and aggregate transactions, along with ways to deal with problems through hard evidence. It started out using standard CRM tools to manage customer contact, so if a dealer claimed they hadn't received a call, payment or a title, they could resolve disputes accurately.

Gradually, said Iorgulescu, the company kept adding capabilities until the system was a full-fledged business process and customer-relations tool that let Openlane monitor everything from arbitration and title searches to accounting, all in one place. It was then able to open up the platform to dealerships, which could keep track of their own records.

Going with Force.com
Iorgulescu said he was seduced by the App Exchange on Force.com at first, because he could pick and choose from products that could be dropped into place on his Salesforce.com portal. Openlane then began to develop its own products in Force.com.

Despite the completely proprietary nature of Force.com, the fact that a company like Openlane could use it profitably meant that it had legs.
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"It really drastically reduced the time it took to go and change these processes," said Leslie Brownlie, senior product developer for Openlane. She said that because of Force.com's proprietary and streamlined codebase, which is based around tight integration with Salesforce.com's online services, she could do seven or eight product releases a year with a minimum of headaches. She said it even let non-IT professionals safely dabble with the platform.

"We have a pretty small engineering team based on Saleforce and some business users who've been getting pretty savvy," she said. Brownlie said she found it hard to estimate the potential savings on development by using cloud services such as Force.com to knit together their in-house auction software and accounting software. She said it was, practically speaking, impossible to see doing it another way or even trying to switch to another vendor.

"That's the way it's always been in software," said Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research, which specializes in CRM platforms. He said that even if Openlane had concerns about vendor lock-in, there was no way for a midsized enterprise to be free. He said if it wasn't Force.com and SAP, it would be another vendor, as Openlane would never have the resources to develop more than its core software.

He said that seeing mid-sized firms like Openlane easing into something like Force.com from Salesforce.com was an indicator that cloud computing may be reaching a critical mass. He noted that, despite the completely proprietary nature of Force.com, the fact that a company like Openlane could use it profitably meant that it had legs.

"They've basically lowered the barrier for development," he said, to the point where firms like Openlane could develop a sophisticated, fully integrated online platform for customers.

Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.

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