Cloud Consolidation Accelerates And Gets Expensive

by: Dana Blankenhorn

The days when cloud companies could buy out other cloud companies and get an immediate lift to earnings are over.

It's now obvious that cloud is real, that the industry is consolidating rapidly, and that the remaining pieces on the cloud acquisition board are going to become increasingly expensive.

For investors it means that cloud acquisitions will no longer be accretive to earnings. With fewer pieces on the board, prices will be high. With each of those pieces now an active company with its own offerings and corporate culture, the cost of integrating it with the parent will also go up.

The strategy, then, is probably to buy up any targets you see and sell protective puts against those stocks you own that turn out to be acquirers.

Exhibit A is Salesforce.Com (NYSE:CRM) buying ExactTarget (NYSE:ET) for $2.5 billion. This was a hefty premium for ExactTarget, a premium that will probably be reflected soon in the prices of any other public company that can convince people it has cloud in its sites.

In some ways, that's hard to see with ExactTarget. The company is basically an e-mail marketing company, delivered via Software as a Service or SaaS. It can deliver via mobile, and deliver to social sites, but it's still basically email.

Over 2012 ExactTarget had sales of just under $300 million, so Salesforce is paying more than eight times trailing revenues - even if the company were growing smartly in 2013 that would be a premium price. Worse, ExactTarget has been losing money steadily. In any other environment it might have been left on the floor to fail of its own accord. But these are not ordinary times. Got cloud? Get cash.

Salesforce, naturally, has gone into reverse on this news, shedding nearly 10% of its value in a matter of a day or so. I believe the shares will continue to be under pressure, and that could increase once the company announces earnings with ExactTarget included.

IBM (NYSE:IBM) may have stepped into similar problems with its purchase of Softlayer for a price reported at almost $2 billion. Here the immediate problem isn't as serious - privately-held SoftLayer had revenues of $335 million. And apparently the company aced out EMC (EMC) in making the purchase.

But the integration problems with this acquisition will be serious. Softlayer's cloud servers use software it calls CloudLayer, which in turn runs off Xen hypervisors, not the KVM system IBM itself favors. The operating system is also pure Xen, Citrix (NASDAQ:CTXS) XenServer. IBM has seemed to focus on supporting only OpenStack, originally sponsored by Rackspace (NYSE:RAX) as its cloud infrastructure, endorsing it last year, and to emphasize purified cloud technologies like virtual servers.

So why did CEO Ginny Rometty pull the trigger? Because cloud technologies are becoming harder to find, for one thing. But CloudLayer also lets companies create "dedicated" servers. Sounds like a contradiction with the intent of cloud, and it is. But by dedicating a machine to your own services, or a collection of machines, companies make certain that their data won't be mixed up with data from other companies. In many industries, from finance to medicine, this matters a lot.

This is an enterprise play, in other words, that will eventually give IBM more of what large customers want, which is customization. That, not the mass market cloud offered by Amazon.Com (NASDAQ:AMZN), is IBM's meat. It wants to manage large organizations through an ongoing transition from the old client-server technology to cloud, on their terms, in their way, no matter the cost.

It's a long game IBM is playing. Positive results won't be achieved until the mass migration of these large organizations toward cloud begins in earnest. But IBM can now begin that sales task.

Expect benefits from this to show up slowly, however. This won't be accretive until the fourth quarter at least, maybe later. Which means you can expect to see the stock under pressure over the next several months. The stock fell only $2/share on the news of the SoftLayer purchase, but it should cause some earnings disappointment in the first quarter after its results are integrated with the parent.

Sometime in the next few months, IBM is going to become a buying opportunity. Oh, and despite its poor financial results Rackspace (RAX) is definitely in play.

Disclosure: I am long IBM. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.