Honey, I Shrunk the Tech Sector: M&A Alters the Game

Back in the good old days, there was a degree of certainty about the tech sector. Companies like Cisco ( CSCO) and Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) could partner knowing that one essentially touted networking gear and the other sold servers and software. The Google ( GOOG) CEO could even sit on the board of Apple ( HPQ) with barely a raised eyebrow . Not any more, though.

The recession has been the catalyst for a major tech shake-up, turning long-standing buddies into enemies and prompting acquisitions that would have been greeted with incredulity just a couple of years ago. Whether Cisco's entry into the server market, or Oracle's ( ORCL) surprise acquisition of Sun Microsystems ( JAVA), the tech market is undergoing a rapid transformation. The big question is -- who will be the winners and losers?

"There have been a few big tectonic shifts that have happened," Ron Gruia, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan told TheStreet.com. "When Cisco announced their UCS (Unified Computing System), that was the first one of the big moves that have happened."

Small Cap Tech Plays

With IT budgets tightening and companies becoming ever more global, tech executives are looking to reduce the number of suppliers they deal with. As a result, tech companies are on an M&A and partnership tear.

"There's going to be more of that because there's still the drive for single-source IT buying in CIO offices," said Martin Tobias, a partner at Bellevue, Wash.-based venture capital firm Ignition Partners. "The more things they can buy from one company, the happier they are."

Among the recent notable tech-deal news:
  • Oracle bought Sun Microsystems
  • IBM bought SPSS
  • EMC bought Data Domain
  • Radware bought Nortel's Alteon switch business
  • Rackable Bought Silicon Graphics
  • Broadcom attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy Emulex
  • Speculation has linked NetApp with more M&A
  • Dell is reportedly planning a "significant acquisition" possibly in storage or services
  • Tech Talks Tough

    As for the sector's winner and losers, the VC feels that it will all come down to execution, rather than the nuts and bolts of technology.

    "The winners are likely to be H-P and Cisco, in my opinion," said Tobias, who is also the CEO of startup Kashless.org. "It's going to come down to who can integrate well."

    Cisco and Hewlett-Packard

    Tobias explained that since the "mess" of the Compaq merger, H-P has sharpened up its M&A strategy. He even witnessed this firsthand when the tech giant bought Ignition-backed RLX Technologies and Consera Software.

    "They bought two of our companies at Ignition and did a great job," he said, adding that Cisco is no slouch when it comes to buying technology. "Cisco's business model is to buy boxes that are similar to their existing boxes, connect them up with their distribution model and some of their secret software and make them more valuable."

    The San Jose, Calif.-based firm, for example, bought Linksys for $500 million in 2003, which paved the way for Cisco's entry into the home networking market.

    IBM and Oracle

    As for IBM ( IBM) and Oracle, Tobias is less impressed with their acquisition records, pointing particularly to the challenges Oracle faced buying and integrating PeopleSoft.

    IBM, however, won kudos from investors and analysts for walking away from the Sun acquisition, which could have proved a headache for CEO Sam Palmisano and his team.

    Inevitably, IBM would have been forced to dip into its cash reserves to fix Sun's many execution problems, potentially distracting the tech monster at a time when cash is king.

    Still, Oracle has clearly weighed the risks of the Sun acquisition, and could significantly bolster its database offerings through Sun's IP. The troubled tech giant could also open up new revenue streams for Oracle through its blade server business.

    Cisco, however, has arguably made the boldest move of all, launching a blade-based technology which competes directly with H-P and IBM, two of its biggest resellers.

    The UCS could also put big pressure on Cisco's numbers. Excluding items, Cisco's gross margin is typically around 64%, a far cry from the blade server market, where margins are between 18% and 20%.

    "The first question you have to ask is how will Cisco be able to maintain gross margin structure in this market," says Frost & Sullivan's Gruia, but added that Cisco could combat this through high-margin technologies such as security.

    Like hormonal teenagers on the rebound, H-P and IBM have already leapt into the arms of Cisco's rivals, clinching deals with Alcatel-Lucent ( ALU) and Juniper ( JNPR), respectively. Both firms, however, are unlikely to stop there.

    H-P already has its own ProCurve networking business, although Gruia thinks that things are going to really heat up.

    In addition to aggressive pricing, H-P and IBM are also likely to eye acquisitions, particularly in high-speed networking. " Switching specialist Voltaire ( VOLT) could be in play very much," said Gruia. "They have a very good product, and I think they will be snapped up by somebody."

    Clearly, however, big changes lie ahead, making it tough to predict who will emerge victorious.

    "It's too early to call a winner," said Sajai Krishnan, CEO of cloud storage specialist Parascale. "These companies are starting to each other's turf, but history has shown that it's a lot harder to pull off than you would think at first glance."

    Shrewd investors should wait before picking a horse in this particular race.

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