Salesforce built a data lake to transform how customer data moves on the platform

·5-min read

The ultimate goal of pulling customer data together into a customer data platform (CDP) is building more meaningful customer experiences in real time. Up until now, that's been more aspirational than real, but Salesforce is announcing Genie, a real-time data integration platform, today at the Dreamforce customer conference, which aims to make that dream a reality.

At its core, Genie is a new data integration model that underlies the entire Salesforce platform with the aim of moving data wherever it’s needed most -- and doing it fast.

Patrick Stokes, EVP and GM of platform at Salesforce, says this is probably the biggest news coming out of Dreamforce this week. “Genie effectively enables the world's first real-time CRM,” he said.

“So we're announcing that our Customer 360 applications -- sales, service, commerce, marketing, everything in our Customer 360 portfolio -- now have access to an entirely new way of bringing data into Salesforce in real time at scale that we've never been able to achieve before. And with that, our users can orchestrate real-time customer experiences against those datasets,” Stokes explained.

Prior to this, the company had built data integrations based on the transactional data in the Salesforce CRM database. This goes back to 2007 when Salesforce announced plans for Force.com at that year’s Dreamforce. Stokes said Genie is the modern equivalent of that early attempt, using a data lake that the company built to store the data instead of a transactional database.

“We connected this lakehouse architecture to the Salesforce platform, which at the technical layer means literally, we taught it Salesforce metadata, which is the way that all of our services talk to each other.” This approach also allows the platform to work with external services and data repositories, as well. In fact, the Snowflake integration the company announced last week is built with this technology.

But Genie is more than just a data integration layer. By allowing data to flow faster and more freely, it opens up all kinds of automation possibilities, especially when you combine it with Einstein for AI and machine learning and Salesforce Flow, the company’s workflow tool.

“If your platform can suddenly talk to all of this new data, and that data is coming in in real time, then you can use our automation layer like Salesforce Flow to orchestrate workflows or automations in real time, but only if the platform can keep up with the speed of change and volume of data that's coming in,” he said.

Part of the ability to go faster beyond the architectural changes at the software level is that Genie is running on Salesforce's own cloud infrastructure, Hyperforce, which was announced in 2020 as a way to move data from Salesforce to the public cloud. In this case, they are using it to move data between Salesforce and other services, both on the platform and to other data sources like Snowflake or Amazon SageMaker.

He adds that this ability to move data around in real time (or near real time), creates what is essentially a customer data graph.

“When you connect all of these different data sources into Genie, be those directly or other data lakes like Snowflake, what you're doing is you're modeling the data. You're basically hooking it up to a data model. And when you do that, you're creating a graph of how all that data is related to each other, independent of where it lives in a particular system of record, which is incredibly powerful,” Stokes said.

Liz Miller, an analyst at Constellation Research, says the shift to a new data model is a much-needed move for the company by pushing the CDP beyond marketing

"Honestly the thing I find most important about this is that Salesforce is moving in the right direction with their vision of a customer data platform. They are not treating a CDP as if it is a marketing toy for marketing things. Instead, they are turning the CDP into a foundational layer of unified, normalized and persistent personalization and smart segmentation that benefits the entire customer experience front line across sales, service and marketing," Miller told TechCrunch.

Sheryl Kingstone, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence, who has been covering the CRM space for years, agrees, saying the key to this change is building the data mechanism in a way that you can share this valuable data more widely.

“They are really focused on building this as part of what I would say is a true platform with all of the assets that this needs to work, and hopefully, it will create what I call a 'customer intelligence platform,' which makes sure that you don't have multiple different CDP silos. And we finally can have that single source of the truth and execute on it."

The combination of tooling has the potential to be able to make things happen based on the data and the situation without requiring human intervention, and that can be powerful. But Kingstone says the human side still matters and companies have to learn to put data in the hands of the people on the ground working with customers.

That’s going to be a huge challenge, regardless of how sophisticated the technology is, but Salesforce is attempting something big here that’s never been done before by changing the way data moves around the platform. Whether that truly leads to better customer experiences, online and in person, however, remains an open question.

Unlike many Dreamforce announcements, customers don't have to wait until next year for Genie. These new capabilities are available now.