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Salesforce's reseller program brings the middleman back into cloud computing

As the hype builds around cloud computing, questions are growing about how resellers of software — the so-called middlemen — will make money.

By delivering software in the Internet cloud (meaning over thousands and thousands of computer servers), companies like Google can more easily sell their software directly to customers. But Salesforce.com says it’s now bringing resellers back into the game.

The San Francisco company is launching a program for so-called value-added resellers (VARs) to sell services and custom applications on top of Force.com, its platform for building custom business applications. (Salesforce says Force.com has been used to build 120,000 custom apps.)

This program is aimed particularly at consulting companies that have built their businesses around selling traditional software — that is, by developing custom applications for other companies and providing help with implementation and training.

These resellers have been cut out of cloud application platforms like Force.com, Amazon Web Services, and Google’s App Engine until now, says Mark Trang, senior director of global partner marketing at Salesforce. But they can help bring Force.com to a fresh set of customers who may need more services or customization than Force.com provides off-the-shelf.

“It’s pretty arrogant for us to think we’re going to disintermediate the channel [of resellers],” Trang says.

Consultants participating in the program will have to pay Salesforce fees of $7.50 per user per month or more. In exchange, Salesforce provides Force.com certification, a resource center for sales and implementation, and support for the basic platform. Launch partners include Appiphony, American Data Company, EDL Consulting, Lexnet Consulting Group, MK Partners, Reside, Silver Tree Systems, and Sundog.

We may see Force.com competitors following suit as they try to expand and reach more traditional customers. Not that the cloud computing world is as free of middlemen as it might sound — a rich system of companies already offers services on top of Amazon’s cloud, so a formal reseller program may be a next step, and earlier this year Google launched a reseller program for Google Apps, its package of online office software.

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