Just one day after Dell announced its first infrastructure-as-a-service offering, the company is jumping deeper into the cloud. Dell will offer a family of hosted software applications for small and midsized businesses, through partnerships with Salesforce.com, Microsoft, Intuit and others, the computer maker announced Tuesday.

The first service, Salesforce.com's CRM system, is available through Dell now, the company said. Next year Dell will offer hosted versions of Microsoft's Dynamics GP ERP software and Intuit's QuickBooks accounting software, as well as other services, it said.

Integrated cloud apps

Dell's pitch is that it will tie the services together on the back-end using its recently acquired Boomi integration software, so that a customer's CRM software can talk to its accounting software, for example. It says it will integrate both cloud and on-premise applications. That's something smaller businesses, without large IT departments, may not want to do themselves.

Dell will also offer, by the middle of next year, a hosted analytics service that works across all its hosted applications, providing managers with a "unified view" of their business through a "cross-platform dashboard," Dell said.

The services are a smart move for Dell, said industry analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research. They allow the company to draw on its large base of small and midsized business customers to build a software hosting business.

"A lot of SMBs aren't going to want to do the integration of all these different applications in the cloud, so Dell is putting together a package that does it for them," Wang said.

The services, called the Dell Cloud Business Applications, were announced in conjunction with Salesforce.com's Dreamforce conference. They will be Dell-branded, and customers will be able to log in once to access all the services, Dell said.

Questions remain

Some questions remain, such as how quickly next year Dell will roll out additional services. Executives declined to give further details about timing, and they wouldn't say whose software Dell will use for the analytics service, or how much that service will cost when it launches next year.

Dell is charging standard list prices for the Salesforce.com and Boomi services, said Steve Felice, president of Dell's consumer and SMB businesses. A package including five Salesforce.com seats and a Boomi licence to integrate two applications costs $565 per month, according to Dell's website. Implementation services for Salesforce.com start at $5,000 (£3,000).

Dell isn't hosting the Salesforce applications itself, which will instead remain in one of Salesforce's own data centres, said Paulette Altmaier, a vice president with Dell's solutions group. Dell will pull the customer's Salesforce into one of its own data centres, where it will host the analytics and integration services, she said.

Other applications may be hosted in Dell's own data centre, depending on which partners it chooses, she said.

SaaS (software as a service) is entering the mainstream and smaller businesses want help navigating the choices available to them, Felice said. Dell's goal isn't to build a marketplace that gives them a menu of choices for the same task. It will steer them towards what it thinks is the "best of breed" product.

"As a trusted advisor, we believe we're supposed to have a point of view," Felice said.

On-premises connections

Boomi can connect to most of the popular packaged applications used by SMBs, through 72 software "connectors," Dell said. It won't do "custom engagements" for customers with specific application needs, Felice said, but Boomi is extensible, so an SMB could hire a third party such as a systems integrator to link Dell's services to a legacy application, he said.

The services are targeted initially at companies with 100 into 500 employees, Altmaier said, but Dell expects to serve both larger and smaller customers over time. Its definition of mid-size runs up to companies with about 5,000 employees.

It's Dell's second major cloud announcement in as many days, as it tries to expand beyond PCs and into the more profitable software and service markets. Dell also said it would offer a cloud infrastructure service later this year, targeted at large and midsize enterprises.

Dell acquired Boomi, which makes software for integrating cloud-based applications, late last year for an undisclosed sum.