The Destruction of the American Server Sector

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The biggest news I saw Wednesday did not come from Apple (AAPL).

It came from Intel ( INTC), a story in Wired that confirmed something I have long suspected.

The cloud is killing America's server business.

The cloud is a game that Apple has been late to join. It built a huge data center in North Carolina for what it calls iCloud, and it's building a second center in Reno. Reportedly they're powered by the same software running Microsoft's ( MSFT) Azure cloud.

Because of the cloud, the biggest iPod in the Apple lineup has gone from a 160 GB iPod classic, which I bought over a year ago, to a 64 GB iPod Touch that's more of a mini-iPad than a music player. Storage has moved decisively upstream, into PCs and the cloud.

But the cloud is not just a data center. It's not just a place to store your stuff.

The public cloud is evolving into networks of clouds, where huge sites are mirrored in many, many places, and there is plenty of capacity for hosting more. The public cloud has two strong leaders, Amazon.com ( AMZN) and Google ( GOOG).

Google had first-mover advantage here. It pioneered the use of general-purpose computers, rather than proprietary servers, in cloud data centers. Amazon was the first to fully commercialize this new capacity with its Elastic Cloud 2, or EC2, offering. EC2 lets any online idea scale quickly at low cost and lets big companies put up and take down capacity on a whim.

EC2 created Facebook ( FB), which has since grown into building its own cloud network, running open source cloud software. Many other consumer web companies, such as Zynga ( ZNGA), now see a need for their own clouds and cloud networks.

But what about the hardware? Intel still dominates the server chip business, but it has seen a dramatic shift in demand. Back in 2008 the server market was dominated by Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ), Dell ( DELL) and IBM ( IBM). Now there are eight major players. Google is one of them.

The other newcomers are mainly Chinese companies called Original Design Manufacturers, or ODMs. They are doing to Dell what Dell did to other PC makers in the past, using mass customization and build-to-order strategies so cloud companies don't buy PCs until they need them.

You have barely heard of these guys. They include Quanta Computer, SuperMicro ( SMCI), the only one publicly traded in this country, and a unit of Wistron called Wiwynn.

Just as the Chinese are starting to dominate the old PC business with companies like Lenovo, they now dominate the server market because they seized the cloud opportunity while American companies kept trying to sell their old stuff.

IBM has survived this change. The real damage is being done to HP and Dell, both of which took their eyes off the cloud ball and kept them on the old "enterprise computing" paradigm, to their shame and that of shareholders.

Five years ago Dell was worth three times what it is today, a loss of $35 billion in market cap. As late as 2010 HP was worth three times what it is today, and has lost nearly $70 billion in market cap. Microsoft has become a dividend stock, its price going nowhere fast.

The cloud should have begun a new American golden age in technology. In terms of hardware it has, so far, been a huge missed opportunity. Investors have been big losers from this failure to anticipate change.

At the time of publication, the author was long INTC, IBM, MSFT, GOOG and AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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