One of the amusing aspects of being self-employed is watching all the giants battle it out. Every company is gunning for someone, but the amazing thing is that they rarely point their sights directly at each other: NetApp is gunning for EMC who’s more focused on HP who wants to knock off Oracle who’s fixated on IBM. It sounds very “high school romance” but this is deadly-serious business.
The Enterprise IT Ladder: Dell, HP, Oracle, and IBM
Dell -> HP
No question about it: Dell wants to beat HP. It was bad enough back when PCs were king, with Dell constantly undercutting HP on price and supply chain efficiency. Dell went to retail, elbowing HP aside on the shelves at Staples, and even introduced a line of printers. But the enterprise data center has taken things to a whole new level. Dell’s plays in blade servers and storage are drawn from the same playbook, only there’s more in-house IP and R&D involved this time. Dell arguably got the iSCSI prize in EqualLogic but couldn’t seal the deal for 3PAR, settling on Compellent instead. They’re working hard in the professional services market; Could networking be next?
HP -> Oracle
For the longest time, HP wanted to be IBM. Then Oracle stomped on their servers with Sun and started flaunting their software-heavy profit margins. Appointing Leo Apothiker as CEO sends an unambiguous signal: HP’s gunning for Oracle. The printers, PC’s, servers, storage and networking gear isn’t going anywhere (HP’s got fights picked in each area), but software and services are the only way to make shares of HPQ perk up. Watch for some startling acquisitions and more bizarre rear-guard antics from Ellison and company.
Oracle -> IBM
Although Oracle is clearly enjoying poking sharp sticks in HP’s direction, they’re focused forward. Larry Ellison has seen the future, and it looks an awful lot like IBM: Massive services revenue, a “we do it all” executive sales pitch, and “hate to love us” handcuffs on the C-level executives at the largest global corporations. It’s worked so far: ORCL shares have risen steadily since the end of the last recession.
IBM -> IBM
IBM has seemed aimless for a decade. Armonk has won every enterprise IT war it’s fought, leaving it nowhere to turn. Spinning out the printer and PC businesses sent a signal that IBM was a different kind of company, and Wall Street is singing the chorus. In many ways, the middle-aged IBM of the 1980’s is the enemy of the new, with the company dreaming of a return to the “Mad Men” Big Blue of yore. Although this is much exactly what HP and Oracle are aiming for as well, IBM is the aloof valedictorian who just needs to keep his grades up until graduation.
Tag Team: EMC and Cisco -> HP
Cisco is like a mini IBM: All of their historical rivals are dead and buried, forcing them to look outside their traditional market for growth. Cisco seems loathe to climb the HP/Oracle/IBM ladder, seeking instead to take enough of their market to maintain solid revenue growth and profitability. Their blade servers smacked HP, which responded with a challenge in the networking space. Realizing they needed help, Cisco looked around for an “enemy of my enemy” to mount a serious IT infrastructure challenge.
What happens when you combine the market leaders in enterprise IT verticals like SAN storage, encryption and authentication, server virtualization, backup, and records management? You get EMC Corporation, the biggest company most “regular people” have never heard of. Something about “information.” Wall Street seems to have a hard time making sense of this company, too.
EMC seems overly concerned about smaller competitors (NetApp, Symantec, cloud providers), but the combination of EMC and Cisco is formidable indeed. The two and their joint venture, known as VCE, have the sales muscle to go head-to-head with Dell, HP, and IBM in the enterprise data center, and their control of key components make them a hard team to ignore.
The Wolves: NetApp and Juniper
NetApp -> EMC
Back in the 1980’s, Honda decimated the American carmakers with just a few models; They sold millions of Accords and Civics while GM watch whole brands disappear. That’s NetApp in the enterprise storage space. They pull in top-tier revenue quarter after quarter with essentially a single product line, taking on dozens of storage devices from HP, HDS, IBM, and EMC. Especially EMC. Talk to NetApp insiders and you’ll hear those three letters frequently, with precious little attention paid to anyone else. Data Domain might have made them a broader play, but NTAP shares have risen steadily since losing that takeover battle with EMC. Now NetApp is stripped down and running hard to close the revenue gap, too.
Juniper -> Cisco
Cisco is vulnerable in their core networking markets, and Juniper is ready to take them on. Since their $4 Billion acquisition of NetScreen in 2004, Juniper has been cherry-picking up-and-coming technologies in every market Cisco dominates, from the WAN to wireless. Though JNPR shares have taken their lumps, this is every bit a “Dell” to Cisco’s “HP”. The various networking sub-markets include many agile competitors, but Juniper is like NetApp: Insiders have a single-minded focus on the market leader.
The enterprise IT game is getting serious. Emerging from their historical strongholds, Dell, HP, and Oracle are each undermining the other, and everyone is chipping away at IBM. They each realize that they must focus upward for real growth rather than fighting a rear-guard against smaller and newer competitors. The challenge for HP and Oracle will be to expand rapidly enough to keep Wall Street from noticing the erosion from below.
Meanwhile, Cisco and EMC have joined forces out of necessity to grown both revenue and share price, while their own bases are chipped away by Juniper and NetApp. The upstarts can flourish within the verticals of networking and storage, but the VCE team is seems tenuous and uncertain. The joint venture can challenge the full-line players on a customer-by-customer basis, but history shows that only an integrated vendor can rock the enterprise IT world.
Although the information economy is growing, it will not be enough for everyone to survive. These competitors are too cut-throat to allow a smaller challenger to live, and each faces a real threat himself. The largest have a strong base to draw on, while the wolves will always find something to eat. It is those in the middle that face the most serious threat.