Meet the Enterprise IT Superpowers

Who will power the enterprise? The smart money is betting on a few superpowers taking over.

After years spent focusing on personal technology, businesses are increasingly turning back to the enterprise. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest one is the poor economy. Individuals simply have less free cash to spend on gadgets and software, and the meagre profits are increasingly going into the pockets of a single company: Apple.

The corporate IT market is much more dynamic and competitive, with a few very large “superpower” companies discovering their power to drive purchasing decisions. If a supplier can create an integrated “stack” of hardware and software, they can push product purchases that might otherwise be overlooked or postponed. This is the main reason that enterprise IT acquisitions work so well: Where a small company must fight to sell their product, a large one can hitch it to a much more strategic sale and have it pulled along.

The old IBM model is the prototype, with that company once selling everything from office equipment to datacenter gear as well as the consulting and integration services to make it all work.

HP has spent almost two decades bulking up to become the new IBM, buying their way into open systems laptops, desktops, and servers (Compaq), networking (3Com), services (EDS), and storage (Compaq, LeftHand, Ibrix, and perhaps 3Par). HP has been remarkably proficient at executing on this enterprise plan: In talking to enterprise IT folks, I often hear IBM-esque sentiments regarding the new HP. They tell me they’re willing to give HP the benefit of the doubt when it comes to new technologies and products, buying on basis of the company’s reputation and ability to make everything work. This bodes well for the company’s post-Hurd future, and HP has the most-complete “enterprise stack” in the business.

But HP has a target on its back, pinned there by Dell. The folks from Round Rock believe they can be more efficient (and thus profitable) than HP in the same markets, and have been making moves to fortify their enterprise offerings. Dell was always more of a manufacturing than R&D business, but they have shown a desire to broaden their focus. Intrigued by the high-margin mid-enterprise storage business built from their EqualLogic acquisition and their success selling EMC storage, Dell is moving into the enterprise. They matched HP/EDS by purchasing Perot and have made smaller buys in storage (Ocarina, Exanet) as well as the big move for 3Par.

The next big emerging stack player is Oracle. The acquisition of Sun gave Oracle a strong hardware base to complement their command of enterprise software, and many expect further acquisitions. But Oracle is playing a different game than HP and Dell, focusing on the high-margin enterprise space and ignoring more competitive outlying areas. Many suspect the company might make a play in the network space (Brocade, Juniper, and F5 have been mentioned) but storage is possible as well. CEO Larry Ellison is a major investor in Pillar Data Systems, so many expect a spin-in here. But Oracle has the appetite for something much bigger, even EMC or NetApp.

Then there is Cisco, who have attempted to parlay their data center networking strength into a broader position. But Cisco’s halting moves into storage (Fibre Channel switching and SAN extension) did not displace the market leaders, and their server products (UCS) have not made much of a dent on HP, IBM, and Dell either. A solid partnership with EMC has delayed further forays into the enterprise storage market, and Cisco seems puzzlingly interested in low-margin access businesses (Linksys, Flip) and their Cius tablet.

There are other players in the enterprise space as well. EMC has diversified under CEO Joe Tucci, taking a dominant position in server virtualization (VMware) and making a strong enterprise security acquisition (RSA). But the many faces of enterprise storage remains EMC’s strength, and they seem content to partner with Cisco for a stack sale. Hitachi, NEC, and Fujitsu also offer varying enterprise hardware and software stacks, but their comparatively small sales presence in the US market limits their ability to execute. In the final analysis, only IBM, HP, Dell, and perhaps Oracle can claim to be enterprise IT superpowers at this point.

Image credit: Steam Engine by Stuck in Customs