“Quien Es Mas Macho”: Software Or Optics?

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Last week I attended an Optical/SDN conference in NY while I also moderated an SDN user panel at another conference in Silicon Valley.  In attending such conferences, I always look forward to learning how traditional service providers (e.g. Verizon) and content providers (e.g. Google) utilize or plan to utilize SDN to address major operational pain and cost points in their networks.  For example, major content providers speaking at these conferences have already begun to utilize internally developed software-based load balancing and security applications within the SDN framework.  As an example, one major content/hosting provider told me at one of these conferences that they no longer add appliance based load balancers to one of their network services as they have developed and utilize their own internally developed virtual load balancer.  The virtualization of some basic functionality typically found within security and application delivery controller appliances, is now an initial use case within the SDN framework by content providers like Amazon, Azure, Facebook, and Google.

When it comes to service provider wide area connectivity, however, it is striking for me to hear how Google has achieved up to 90% utilization on their data center to data center WAN links in their current SDN deployment, while traditional telecom operators like Verizon, CenturyLink etc. continue to echo that their respective optical transport networks remain dramatically underutilized given these networks were designed for peak traffic load rates and up to 50% of the networks were constructed as spare, idle capacity to address various failure scenarios (e.g. fiber cuts, human error when servicing equipment etc.).  So, is the SDN software development expertise of content companies like Google so superior that it allows them to achieve such a high WAN utilization rate vs. traditional telecom operators?

Certainly software centric content companies like Google have significant resources that allow them to develop SDN based network optimization software to achieve such high WAN connectivity rates, but they also have the advantages over traditional telecom operators in the type of traffic they carry across their WAN and that they don’t typically deploy their own national fiber network.  For example, when one thinks of the main end user Google applications, Gmail, YouTube and Search come to mind.  While these are important services, users do not typically pay directly for such services given the advertising model and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are not likely as comprehensive as what a carrier like Verizon has with its customers.  Also, when an end user experiences a slow/choppy video experience with YouTube, the user usually blames its broadband service provider, not Google.  Separately, Google probably does not utilize its SDN network optimization software down to the optical layer as it likely utilizes carriers like Verizon for national optical transport.   Finally, since carriers like Verizon in the US are not permitted to use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) techniques to prioritize traffic to help improve transport utilization (which could be especially useful during failure scenarios), the solution for a carrier like Verizon to improving and maximizing transport utilization is not likely to be via a software-based SDN solution alone.

With this is a backdrop, it seems that there is an opportunity for equipment suppliers to traditional telecom operators to “marry” SDN software and optics while also using utilizing other tools like the GMPLS and network analytics to dramatically improve optical network utilization across the WAN and within the optical transport network while also maintaining a high level of service assurance.  Optical transport is a huge cost for network operators, and if the effective average optical transport utilization rates are in 15%-25% range, that seems like a pain point that is ripe for a solution.  The start-up company Plexxi is “marrying” optics, SDN control and mathematical algorithms to address scale and service agility to tackle pain points within the data center. If successful, Plexxi may end up being “Mas Macho” in the data center given this vision.   I would not be surprised if Cisco data center switching spin-in Insieme may also be looking at some level of SDN control and optics integration for the data center as part of their product solution.  We will likely formally hear about Insieme’s product this summer.

As for the WAN, however, VCs, are not typically enthusiastic about funding service provider equipment companies given long sales cycles with Tier1 carriers and customer concentration issues.  Throw in the word optics to business case and that makes for strike three.  Thus, traditional optics and/or router equipment companies may have an opportunity to differentiate themselves in solving the high cost, low WAN optical transport utilization rate problem.  While SDN is about separating the control plane and data plane and using software applications and network virtualization to achieve service creation and network agility, its initial focus was for Layer 2/3 switches with an “electrical” based fabric within the data center. Optimizing expensive WAN links for traffic flows that span both electrical fabrics within the data center and optical wavelengths across the WAN while dealing with vendor specific optical intricacies such as Forward Error Correction (FEC), amplifier settings, modulation techniques etc. is not likely to be solved by SDN software control alone.  To be “Mas Macho” in solving the optical WAN utilization challenge, the solution is likely to require multiple ingredients, including, SDN software control, multi-vendor element management system support and visualization, network analytics, a strong optical pedigree and the use of industry protocols (e.g. GMPLS, Openflow etc.).

It is no surprise that Cisco has acquired both SDN software and optical sub-system companies (e.g. CoreOptics and Lightwire) over the past couple of years.   While silicon photonics will play a critical role in achieving single chassis, highly dense routers with 400G interfaces, is Cisco also looking beyond next generation 400G port routers and the broader issue of low WAN utilization rates?   Alcatel-Lucent, another company with core competencies in routing and optics also recently announced its Nuage Networks SDN Virtualized Services Platform solution. While Nuage offers some innovative WAN features in service provider MPLS VPNs, it does not address utilization issues in the optical transport domain.  Will Alcatel-Lucent seek to leverage its initial Nuage SDN software solution with its traditional competency in routing and optics to address the optical transport utilization issue?  Time will tell whether Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and/or other vendor(s) will be “Mas Macho” marrying software with optics in solving perhaps one of the most significant cost pain points today in service provider WAN transport.

Switch Wars (At An Interop Near You)

This week the networking industry will attend the annual Interop trade show in Las Vegas.   While Software Defined Networking (SDN) and its potential disruption or new growth driver to the networking industry continues to be the main hot topic in the industry, the Data Center Ethernet Switch market remains a vibrant, good growth market in the near/intermediate future.  SDN will clearly be a major force in the networking industry over the next several years, but winning Ethernet Switching Data Center customers and footprint today will only enhance a networking company’s chance of being relevant and driving the transition to SDN.

In the past week, Data Center switch vendors Arista, Brocade and HP all announced new Data Center Ethernet Switch products.  In addition, Juniper announced its new Data Center switch about a month ago.  These and other competitors such as Extreme, Dell, and Huawei are all aiming to be of significant size and the number two Data Center Switch vendor after Cisco, which clearly dominates this market with over 65% market share.  In looking at all the recent Data Center switching product announcements, it seems to me that Arista with its new 7500E continues to stay ahead of the Cisco challengers when looking at a variety of key metrics such as latency, scalability (i.e. supports up to 100,000 servers in a two-tier design) and interface port flexibility (i.e. single line card for 10/40/100GbE).  While these hardware metrics suggest Arista continues to stay ahead of its peers, Arista also was early in developing an open based operating system based on Linux, which positioned the company’s Data Center switch products on the SDN path well before SDN was a hot topic in the networking industry.   In simplest terms, Arista seems to be given the networking industry what it wants, namely, a strong technical product line that offers both best in class hardware metrics and an open and easy to use operating system.

While the battle for number two after Cisco in the Data Center switch market is far from over, especially given the larger resources some of Arista’s competitors possess in terms of R&D, distribution and product breadth beyond switching, Arista seems to me as the one to beat.  I also think Arista’s technology product momentum is making them the likely company to beat in the high profile NYSE Data Center Switching “jump ball” that has been ongoing on for several months.   From a stock perspective, if Arista (currently a private company) can continue to leverage its technical advantages in the Data Center Switch Market through increasing market share, its success will likely take away a key potential stock catalyst for its publicly traded competitors.   While Cisco will always be the number one in Data Center Switching, a strong, rapidly growing number two could make for a good investment opportunity.  Right now, Arista is making that challenging for its publicly traded peers.

Disclosure: I do not currently own shares of any company mentioned in this blog post.  NT Advisors LLC may solicit any company mentioned in this blog post for consulting services.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Wall Street has generally focused its research and analysis on how SDN will impact the technology sector. I have also expressed my views on this topic in prior blog posts and have generally taken the view that Layer 4-7 appliance companies may be most at risk as such appliances will be replaced by software applications, merchant silicon semiconductor companies may be poised to benefit as replacement cycles compress for networking equipment once the control plane is detached from switches, and the jury was still out on traditional switching/routing companies depending on how these companies maintain some level of software differentiation over emerging “white box” networking suppliers.

Last week I attended the OFC/NFOEC optical conference and walked away with some additional elements of my evolving SDN investment thesis.  In particular, while traditional telecom operators should benefit from the potential benefits of deploying SDN in their network, they may be also be at risk as SDN will move the value away from the physical network to the application layer where differentiation will be determined by using software for service creation.  While traditional telecom operators are clamoring for SDN as a way to reduce vendor lock-in, lower network cost and enhance service creation, I am not yet sure how well they will compete against software-centric rooted large data center operators like Google in cloud computing services.  Thus, as the value moves away from the network to the software layer, SDN may actually be a threat to traditional telecom operators.  Companies that can help traditional telecom operators through this transition to allow them to better compete vs. software-centric data center operators, will ultimately derive significant value in the financial markets in my view. 

While OFC/NFOEC is supposed to be a conference specializing primarily on optical communications, SDN permeated several of the presentations and seminars.  What I found interesting in several of these presentations was the contrast of how large data center operators like Google and Facebook talked about their specific traffic patterns and resulting approach to building out their data centers and network and how they plan on using SDN in this regard vs. how traditional telecom operators discussed the same topic.    The following table shows some general initial takeaways I had from these presentations.

Attribute

Software Centric Data Center Operator

Traditional Telecom Operator

Traffic Mostly machine to machine Mostly end user driven
Hardware Disposable Asset Long Term Asset
Software Core competency Bundled By Vendor
Network Protection Algorithm Focused Network Focused
Benefits of SDN Service creation

Reduce complexity

Reduce cost

Lower cost

Remove vendor lock-in

Service creation

Let me reflect on a few points on the above table.  Large data center operators like Google and Facebook are fundamentally software companies while traditional telecom operators are generally not.  The ultimate virtualization of the network layer, which is a key objective of SDN, will make software more of a differentiator between data center operators than it is today and could further differentiate data center operators in business and cloud computing services vs. traditional telecom operators in the future.

For example, a large data center operator at the conference talked about how they replace their servers every 18 months in their data centers as it is more cost effective for them to purchase new servers than to run their data centers on older servers.   Now I am not sure what the replacement cycle for servers are in data centers are large telecom operators, but the mindset of hardware being disposable is not typically embedded within the culture of traditional telecom operators.

Another example that resonated with me at the conference was how several telecom operators (and data center operators) talked about how optical transport cost is now about 80% of the network core capital spending costs vs. 20% for routers whereas several years ago the percentages were exactly the opposite.  In addition, some of telecom operator presentations also talked about how network protection in the optical core sometimes equates up to 50% of the network cost.  So, if routing is becoming a much lower relative cost in the core than optics, why are telecom operators putting so much focus in SDN presentations on vendor lock-in within Layer 3 of their network? Clearly all types of cost reduction should be pursued and attacking 20% of the cost is still important, but if separation of the control/data plane in Layer 3 is only going to address 20% of your cost, perhaps there should be more focus on industry standards for optical layer control protocol (e.g. extension of Openflow to the optical layer) and API software development that attacks network utilization and restoration.

So in summary, my main conclusions from the OFC/NFOEC conference in relation to the evolving SDN market are:

  1. While traditional telecom operators will benefit from SDN, they may also be at risk given a more software centric culture and pedigree at certain large data center operators.  Companies that can help traditional telecom operators becoming more software savvy will likely become valuable companies.
  2. Optics is becoming a larger part of the network cost problem than routers for both data center and telecom operators.  Hardware and software companies that attack and solve this problem will likely become valuable companies. Although funding for such hardware initiatives is not in vogue, hardware companies could include merchant silicon companies for coherent optical DSPs or companies that innovate on integration of optical components (e.g. silicon photonics, indium phosphide).  Software companies could include companies that solve high costs associated with network utilization (given the very wide spread in network traffic between peak and average traffic loads) and network protection.
  3. While switching remains an important cost problem, it presents a much bigger problem within the data center in terms of network agility and an obstacle to service creation.   Data center operators want switching solutions that scale horizontally with the control plane disaggregated.

Oracle Goes Telecom II

Well it seems Oracle is serious about expanding its business with telecom operators as it announced today it will acquire diameter routing and SS7 signaling specialist Tekelec. This complements and adds to the announced acquisition of Acme Packet, which was announced just over a month ago on February 4th.   It looks to me that Oracle clearly wants to expand its business with telecom operators, but it is doing it in a very complementary and focused way through these two acquisitions.  So far, both acquisitions of Tekelec and Acme are providing Oracle relatively high margin revenues in the telecom market in the control, policy and management layers of the core of telecom networks.  This complements Oracle’s database revenues in telecom networks focused on business operations, end customer engagement and applications.

My two quick observations on Oracle’s recent telecom acquisitions are as follows:

Staying Focused, Watching SDN For New Entry Points: So far, Oracle has stayed away from entering network infrastructure products that actually carry network traffic and end user information (e.g. routers, switches, optical, etc.).   Oracle seems very focused on staying within the network management, policy and control supervisory layers of the network and not entering classic network infrastructure.  I suspect Oracle will stay true to this plan of action. In the future, however, as SDN and network virtualization develop as new markets, I would expect Oracle to look at taking advantage of this technology disruption as certain hardware based infrastructure functionality becomes software based running on the network core as potential future revenue opportunities.

Offensive and Defensive Acquisitions Given Cisco’s Software Aspirations: While Cisco and Oracle are not that competitive today, Cisco’s ambition to be more of a software company clearly suggests the two companies are more likely to compete for acquisitions and new markets in the future.  I believe Oracle has stepped up its acquisition efforts in the telecom vertical to gain a stronger foothold in telecom policy, control and management core as both an offensive move to expand its addressable market, but also as a defensive move against Cisco as it looks to expand its software business.  “Big IT” business models are converging and will continue to converge in the next several years.  As an example, five years ago neither Cisco nor Oracle sold servers, now they both do.  As network and storage virtualization open up new software markets for new entrants like Oracle and Big Data Analytics potentially open up new software markets for new entrants like Cisco, convergence among “Big IT” players Cisco, EMC, HP, IBM and Oracle is likely to continue to continue.

SDN And Silicon Photonics The Buzz at OFC

While the OFC exhibit floor opens today, I attended a few seminars and the OSA executive session the last couple of days.  The two topics that were more prevalent this year than last year in these sessions were SDN and Silicon Photonics.  My thesis on these two technologies is that the Telecom and IT capex cycle will trump both the longer-term impact of SDN and Silicon Photonics in 2013 in short term investing in 2013. Below are some the interesting takeaways I took from the past couple of days.

Optical Now A Bigger Cost Factor In The Core Than Routing: Major telecom operators like CenturyLink gave presentations that stated that today 80% of their core network cost is in optical equipment with 20% in routers, which is a complete flip of the relative cost structure several years ago.  This will certainly put more pressure on optical companies to seek further cost reduction in their equipment. The general consensus on how that will be achieved is further integration of optical modules (e.g. development of commercial merchant silicon DSPs for coherent optical functionality, silicon photonics or other methods).  It is interesting that the VC community continues to avoide funding optical companies to help solve this cost problem.  Perhaps companies like Broadcom or Intel will look into developing such commercial products in the future.

Fiber Leasing in Europe Should Help Optical Capex: European operator TeliaSonera presented and discussed while there is plenty of fiber capacity in Europe, operators now do not have all the fibers where they need them.  This is causing a increase in leasing dark fibers between carriers, leading to more dark fibers being lit.  This is generally a positive for optical equipment demand as it typically costs more in optical equipment capex to light a fiber than to just add wavelengths to existing fiber routes.  I think this will only help the optical spending cycle in 2013.

Cisco Shows Off The Fruits Of Its Lightwire Acquisition: Cisco showed its new optical module used in its routers and optical systems that was developed from its Lightwire acquisition.  Visually, the new module was impressive as it was about 1/3 of the current size of merchant modules in the market from optical component suppliers.  While there was a lot of debate at this presentation whether optical component suppliers would soon catch up to smaller footprint and lower power modules like Cisco was showing, Cisco has clearly raised the bar for the industry in the race for better optical integration.  I suspect Cisco will use this technology in its new core router, which is likely in my view to hit the market in 2H13.

SDN Is The Panacea: SDN commanded several of the seminars.  As an example, the CTO from Ciena called SDN as the single most important technology in the industry for the next 5-10 years.  Google and Facebook talked about how they have already implemented SDN within their networks.  Google, however, has some unique attributes vs. traditional telecom operators, which has allowed them to implement SDN well before the rest of the industry.  Namely, the vast majority of their traffic is machine to machine and Google is already a software company, which allows them to write their own “SDN-like” applications that can be used within an SDN framework in their network.  Traditional telecom operators all expressed a strong desire to move towards an SDN architecture for both speed and flexibility of new service creation and to better maximize capacity utilization in their networks.

Disclosure:  I currently own shares of JDSU in the optical industry. NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this report for consulting services.

Telco Capex, Big IT War Chests and Optical Component Stocks

I have been traveling quite a bit these past couple of weeks and working on some consulting projects, but wanted to provide a quick update on topics I have been writing about in the past few months.

Telco Capex:  As a continuation of prior blog posts since November of last year, I continue to believe telecom capital spending trends will be positive in 2013 and the momentum still remains positive.  Telco operators are often like Wall Street in that they follow the “herd mentality”, namely, they tend to follow each other in either being offensive or defensive in their respective spending plans.  The setup for a favorable capital spending cycle in 2013 seemed good given the challenging 2011 and 2012 spending environment led to a period of underinvestment going into the build-out cycles associated with LTE, Data Center connectivity and residential broadband upgrades.  While 2011 and 2012 were years of preservation of capital and a defensive posture, 2013 and perhaps 2014 will be years where telecom operators go on the offensive by investing in new technologies in an attempt to gain share and offer new services.  I have already written about how we have seen such offensive moves in the US (e.g. AT&T and Sprint) and Europe (KPN, Telecom Italia, and DT).  Last week, we got the important endorsement of this trend from China Mobile, the wireless operator with the largest wireless capital spending budget in the world.  China Mobile announced its 2013 capital spending budget will be up 49% over 2012, well above analyst expectations of a 23% increase.  I continue to be favorable on telecom equipment stocks given this ongoing positive momentum in capital spending in 2013 and view Ericsson as a reasonable way to play this cycle.   It is important to realize here, however, that most telecom equipment stocks are cyclical, not secular, stocks. Ericsson is up over 50% from the bottom and is already discounting the recovery in telecom capital spending. The “easy money” likely has been made in the stock, although I still think there might be another 10%-20% upside from here.

Big IT War Chests: This past week Salesforce.com raised about $1B through a convertible note while EMC/VMWare announced plans to IPO their Pivotal Big Data/Cloud initiative sometime in the future.  I view both of these events as ongoing evidence how Big IT companies (e.g. Cisco, IBM, Oracle, EMC/VMWare, etc…) are gearing up for an M&A cycle to better position each of them in the battle for Everything Cloud (e.g. Big Data, SDN, Data Center Virtualization etc…).  Salesforce.com already has about $1.8B in cash/investments and generates over $500m a year in free cash flow. The company also has a very high PE multiple of almost 90x 2013 earnings.  Acquisition targets, especially private companies, may find taking Saleforce.com stock as too risky given the high multiple and would prefer cash.  I believe Oracle’s recent acquisition of Eloqua (announced in December) perhaps accelerated Saleforce.com’s desire to have a greater cash balance to have a greater war chest for future acquisitions. In order for Saleforece.com to compete for such acquisitions against more cash rich companies like Oracle, Cisco etc…, they needed to increase the cash balance.  EMC/VMWare on the other hand have the other problem.  In the past, VMWare provided EMC a high multiple currency to make stock based acquisitions, while EMC and VMWare both have had ample cash to make cash based acquisitions. The recent selloff in VMWare stock post reporting 4Q12 results, however, lowered VMWare’s forward P/E multiple to about 20x vs. the historical average of about 35x-40x.  The announcement of the potential IPO of Pivotal in the future helped both stocks and ultimately will provide EMC/VMWare another high multiple stock to make stock based acquisitions.    With Cisco aiming to be more of a software company, Oracle trying to expand more in the telecom space (e.g. Acme Packet acquisition) and all the Big IT companies striving to be leaders in Big Data, SDN and Everything Cloud, we are likely to see an increasing M&A cycle in 2013 and 2014 and these companies are getting their respective war chests ready.

Optical Component Stocks: Silicon Photonics vs. The Cycle: In a prior blog post, I expressed some concern on optical component stocks (e.g. JDSU, FNSR etc…) given the technological threat posed by the emerging Silicon Photonics technology.  I am still concerned about how Silicon Photonics initiatives at Intel and others as well as vertical integration efforts by large buyers of optical components like Cisco (through the acquisitions of CoreOptics and Lightwire), will impact future valuations and stock performance of optical component stocks.  While I still have this concern, the near term cycle of optical spending is likely to trump the longer-term risk of Silicon Photonics in my view.  In a way, Silicon Photonics will be to optical component stocks in 2013 like SDN was to networking stocks in 2012.  As a reminder, Cisco’s stock suffered in 2012 as SDN became a hot topic and VMWare acquired network virtualization specialist Nicira.  While SDN is still a hot topic, Cisco’s stock has performed well in the past several months as the company has beaten estimates, preserved its gross margin and SDN is not viewed a near term threat.  I think the optical cycle is recovering and we should see good spending trends in optical systems and components in 2013, as 2013 will likely be a recovery year after a difficult 2012. In addition, telecom capital spending trends continue to show positive momentum in 2013 as I mentioned above.  Thus, while there will continue to be a lot of discussion and analysis on how Silicon Photonics will impact optical component suppliers in the future, 2013 should be a year where optical companies beat Wall Street estimates.  I think such a playbook will allow optical stocks to further appreciate for a few more months.  Like telecom equipment stocks, optical component stocks are cyclical and they all have already appreciated significantly off the bottom.  Thus, upside from current levels may be limited and the stocks remain very risky and volatile. We should get further information on the status of the optical cycle and the threat of Silicon Photonics this week at the annual fiber optic OFC trade show, which I plan on attending.

Disclosure: I currently own Ericsson and JDSU mentioned in this blog.  NT Advisors LLC may currently and in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog for consulting services.

Did Lloyd Carney Really Know About Q-Fabric When He Was At Juniper?

When a company has been struggling or experiencing an underperforming stock price for many years, an agent of change through new a new CEO is typically needed to attempt a turnaround.  When I was a Wall Street analyst, I would always listen very carefully to what a new CEO of a public company would say in their first public interactions with Wall Street.   In particular, I would listen to see if the new CEO was likely to be an agent of change or not and whether the initial comments seemed rational and well thought out.  A case in point many years ago that raised a yellow flag for me in a company in the TMT sector was when a new CEO of a company talked about bringing integrity/ethics back to the company was a priority.  Shortly after this first conference call, however, the new CEO was sued by his former employer for violating an anti-compete clause.  Maybe it was a coincidence, but the turnaround never happened in this company

One recent example of a positive change of CEO has been Marissa Mayer of Yahoo.  In watching her speak during a January 2013 Bloomberg TV interview, I was very impressed with how she acknowledged Yahoo’s current lack of presence in mobile, but how she planned to address this by leveraging mobile partnerships (e.g. with Facebook) and the daily habits people have using Yahoo for content around sports, stock quotes, weather, etc. as a path to a stronger presence in mobile.  There was no facade or setting ridiculous expectations, but rather a realistic assessment of the current situation and a reasonable path to improve the company’s position in mobile.  The interview of Ms. Mayer can be found here:

http://www.bloomberg.com/video/yahoo-ceo-says-personalization-is-future-of-search-XDvwyS~OTCOMXwWq~j8m2w.html

Ms. Mayer is also getting a lot of press lately about her decision to have Yahoo telecommuters return back to the office.  The reality is telecommuting does not foster a strong culture for technology companies in my view.  More importantly here, is Ms. Mayer is trying to change the culture at Yahoo.  She is trying to be the change agent the company needs.  For Yahoo to turn around and be a more important company in mobile and social networking, the company will need to work more together.  Since Ms. Mayer took only a two-week maternity leave, she is clearly practicing what she is preaching.

Now, let me reflect on another recent CEO change and my initial concern on some of the comments made by the new CEO.  Specifically, I am talking about Lloyd Carney, the new CEO of Brocade.  In looking at Lloyd’s background, he seems like a good choice for Brocade.  Lloyd was formerly CEO of Xsigo (which was acquired by Oracle) and Micromuse (which was acquired by IBM), the COO of Juniper and President of Nortel.  With such a strong background, Lloyd certainly has the qualifications and potential to be successful in being a change agent for Brocade and generating strong returns for its shareholders.

While Lloyd Carney’s background seems solid, I was confused with some comments he made in two recent public appearances as CEO of Brocade.  Specifically, Lloyd made some comparative and reflective comments on the Q-Fabric Data Center Switch, which was developed at Juniper Networks, a competitor to Brocade.  The two comments are shown below:

…. And I’m a technologist at heart, an engineer at heart. And the thing that attracted me most, primarily, to Brocade was technology. I mean, I saw the fabric. I was at Juniper as COO, so I knew how QFabric was created.

Source: seekingalpha.com

Brocade Communications Systems Management Discusses Q1 2013 Results – Earnings Call Transcript, February 14th, 2013

… The fabrics that compete with us today are the Juniper Fabric, which uses the QFabric, which uses the ASIC chipset that I developed 10 years ago when I was there. Very complicated, not very scalable solution,…

Source: Seekingalph.com

Brocade Communications Systems’ CEO Presents at Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference (Transcript), February 25, 2013

Lloyd Carney was COO of Juniper in the 2002-2003 timeframe. At that time, Juniper was not even in the Ethernet Switch business (Juniper formally entered this market in 2008), let alone the more elaborate Q-Fabric data center switch that was generally released to the market in the second half of 2011.  Juniper publicly disclosed the R&D efforts around Q-Fabric in 2009, when the product was code named Project Stratus.  I find it hard to believe that Lloyd new anything about Q-Fabric when he was at Juniper, as the product concept most likely did not even exist in 2002-2003 and I also doubt the ASICs used in Q-Fabric were being conceived in 2002-2003.

Now while this all might be obvious given how long ago Lloyd was at Juniper, the question is why did he make such comments?  I do not know and I hope next time he speaks in the public domain, someone asks for a clarification. But until then, these comments raise a yellow flag to me.  In the meantime, I wish Lloyd all the best in his new role as CEO of Brocade.

Disclosure: I own shares of Yahoo. NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog post for consulting services.

 

What To Do With ALU?

In prior blog posts over the past few months I have been positive on technology stocks for 2013 given low relative valuations to the overall market and my view that IT and telecom capital spending will recover in 2013.  In particular, I have liked Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson as a play on telecom capital spending and increased concern over Huawei as a security threat in the US (and some other markets), and recently Hewlett Packard given extreme negative sentiment, favorable cash flow and a low valuation, which was amplified by the Dell LBO valuation metrics.

While I remain positive on technology to outperform this year, Alcatel-Lucent has become a bit more challenging of a stock in my view.  I think the stock could still work over the course of the remainder of 2013, the next 2-3 months could be volatile and the stock could decline until after 1Q13 results are reported.  I base this on the new dynamics that have become public since the company reported 4Q12 results on February 7th, namely:

–       A new CEO was announced and he will not take over until April 1st, thus, potentially distracting the company during this interim period in 1Q13 as well as the new CEO potentially resetting expectations lower given new CEOs often seek to “lower the bar” when they take over a struggling company

–       Press reports about a potential combination with competitor Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), which in theory could be positive but in reality may be very difficult to implement and execute

–       Press reports that the French government may take a stake in ALU to help secure the future of the company and its patent portfolio, which I think would not be in the best interest of shareholders

Positive on New Executive Announcements

I think the new CEO selection of Michel Combes seems like a good one given his background in the telecommunications industry at Vodafone and France Telecom and more importantly his reputation as a cost cutter, which is what ALU needs the most right now.  I think it is also positive that a new CEO was selected quickly, rather than long drawn out process.  I believe he will be well received by investors when he takes over the company on April 1st.  In addition, I strongly favor the selection of Jean Monty for the new role of Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors. When I was a Wall Street analyst, I found Jean Monty as an excellent CEO as he led the turnaround of Nortel in the 1990s after Nortel had underinvested in R&D and was suffering market share loss and degrading customer relationships.

While I am positive on the two new executive announcements, this first quarter could be a very challenging one for ALU.  The new CEO does not take over until April 1st.  The company could lack focus on trying to deliver the best financial results as possible given uncertainty on what the new CEO will do when he takes over on April 1st.  In addition, the first quarter of every year tends to be the most challenging for ALU and in the industry as a whole.  Thus, there could be some pressure on ALU shares until 1Q13 results are behind the company in my view given these transitory issues.

 Merger With NSN Good Theory, But Probably Difficult in Reality

The press has reported that ALU may be seeking a merger, investment or some other partnership with European competitor NSN. In theory, a merger with NSN might look attractive given both ALU and NSN are competing against much larger wireless infrastructure suppliers Ericsson and Huawei.  Combining forces would reduce competitive pricing pressure and provide more scale to compete against these two larger companies.  In reality, however, merger of equals in the telecom infrastructure usually results in 2+2=3, not 4 or 5.  The reason is that rationalizing duplicative product lines (wireless infrastructure in this case) is not easy, as customers do not typically accept products to be discontinued due to a merger. Thus, duplicative products and associated costs linger much longer than anticipated.  The other main issue in merger of equals is the cultural clashes of the two companies and political infighting that take place post the merger.  In fact, both NSN and ALU experienced these issues when each entity was formed in prior mergers (i.e. Alcatel merging with Lucent and Nokia Networks merging with Siemens infrastructure).

In addition to the challenge of achieving synergies being difficult in a merger between ALU and NSN, the appetite of NSN to go through such a restructuring effort after it is far along on its own restructuring plan would seem low to me.  NSN is well along in its restructuring into a primarily wireless infrastructure company after selling most of its other businesses and downsizing the company’s workforce by close to 25% (e.g. Access business sold to Adtran, Optical business sold to Marlin Equity Partners, Microwave Transport to DragonWave and Business Support Systems to Redknee etc.).  These restructuring efforts have paid off for NSN as it has reported solid financial results in 2012.  Merging with ALU would require a long merger process followed by another couple of years of new restructuring.

Another problem in merging NSN and ALU is that NSN is not a public company and does not have its own stock.   It seems to me that NSN, if public, would have a higher valuation than ALU and be more of the potential acquirer or investor into ALU than ALU being the acquirer or investor into NSN.  NSN is much further along than ALU in its restructuring, and as a result is much more profitable than ALU with full year 2012 operating margin of 5.6% and 4Q12 operating margin of 14.4% vs. ALU full year operating margin of (1.8%) for 2012 and 2.9% for 4Q12.  In addition, NSN has been generating positive cash flow for the past several quarters while ALU burned cash in 2012.  The better profitability, cash flow generation and further restructuring progress at NSN, would likely result in a higher valuation for NSN than the current ALU valuation.  ALU currently trades at about 0.3x EV/Sales. Ericsson, the other global, large, profitable and publicly traded telecom equipment supplier, currently trades at about 1x EV/Sales. My sense is NSN would trade closer to the valuation of Ericsson rather than ALU (maybe 0.6x-0.7x EV/Sales as an estimate).

Given NSN would have the higher valuation than ALU, but does not have a public stock currency, either NSN would first have to be spun out as a stand alone company to obtain a stock currency or NSN parent companies Nokia and/or Siemens would have to put up the cash to acquire ALU.  A spinout is certainly a possibility, but that will take months to implement and it would be highly unusual for such a spinout to do a large acquisition right after the spinout.  I also think neither Nokia nor Siemens has the appetite for using their cash to acquire ALU.  In particular, I think Siemens no longer views telecom infrastructure as strategic and would be reluctant to provide any additional cash infusion to NSN so it could acquire ALU.  Siemens is more likely looking at monetizing its potential stake in NSN (e.g. about €4-€5 billion) rather than investing more into the JV to acquire ALU.  Nokia may want to maintain an ownership in NSN even post an spinout given there are some advantages in selling both mobile devices and infrastructure to telecom operators. Huawei is using this tactic more often, and I believe Nokia views NSN as a way of countering this Huawei sales approach.  There may be some other intricate financial means for NSN to acquire ALU than the two I mentioned above, but regardless of the method, it would be a challenging integration in my view.

French Government Involvement Not Likely In Shareholders’ Interest

Press reports also suggest the French government may seek to invest directly in ALU via the government’s Strategic Investment Fund.  This fund was used in the past to invest in other French based companies (e.g. Gemalto and Nexans SA) that the government viewed as critical to French competitiveness. I am not positive on a French government investment in ALU.  I think a key motivation of the French government to invest in ALU would be for job preservation in France (ALU employees about 9,000 in France), which would oppose the whole idea around cost reduction for ALU and not be in the best interests of shareholders.  For shareholders, I think it would better to see ALU go through a restructuring program much like NSN did over the past two years, rather than take an investment from the French government to preserve French and other European jobs.   As I mentioned in prior blog posts, ALU cannot remain in all aspects of telecom infrastructure, but should follow the path of NSN and focus where the company has scale and competitive advantage. Namely, I think ALU should focus on Access, IP Routing and Optical.

Disclosure: I currently own shares of Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and HP although I may look to sell my ALU position in the very near term given points I mentioned in this blog.  NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog post for consulting services.

Does The Dell LBO Tell Us Anything About HP?

HP has been a horrendous stock in the past two years.  In my view this was due to weak fundamentals in the PC market, poor management decisions on acquisitions and a weak board of directors.  However, HP is still a company with annual revenues off about $120 billion making it one of the largest companies in the market.  HP is not going to disappear, and with some better management decisions and perhaps a better IT spending environment, it could be an interesting turnaround story.  It could, however, also be a value trap that continues to have its stock price decline.  I think HP is more likely to be a good stock performer than a value trap in the next year.  I base this on very negative sentiment and compelling valuation that is only supported by the recently announced LBO of Dell.

Below is a table showing the relative makeup of both Dell and HP.  Since each company segments it’s revenues  differently than the other, I made some assumptions in formulating this competitive table.  A more precise comparative analysis could be performed dissecting SEC filings.
 
                                                         HP  Dell
 Printing or Peripherals                   20%  16%
 PCs/Devices                                  29%  52%
 Services                                          28%  14%
 Servers Storage and Networking  17%  17%
Other                                                 6%  0%
As the table shows, Dell and HP have similar revenue compositions.  In addition, both companies have similar gross margins in the 20s and recent revenue trends of flat to declining revenues year over year.   In a sense, Dell is a smaller version of HP, without the management and board issues. The smaller size and market capitalization of Dell made an LBO possible, while an HP LBO is very unlikely.  Even though HP is not a LBO candidate like Dell, I think looking at the Dell valuation metrics at the LBO takeover price can provide insight into whether HP offers any value to investors.
 
The table below shows recent valuation metrics for HP and Dell.  As the the table shows, HP is a cheaper stock on EV/EBITDA and Price/Book while Dell is a bit cheaper on EV/Sales.  Since value investors tend to be more focused on cash flow metrics like EV/EVITDA and book value of the company, HP trades at a cheaper valuation than Dell.  While HP shareholders will not benefit from a potential LBO, any additional missteps from the current management team could lead to increased activism among shareholders forcing a change of strategy, management team, company break up or some other favorable catalyst for the stock.  If the current management team executes better, the low valuation should provide a base from which the stock can appreciate.  
 
                      HPQ  DELL
 Price/Book  1.47  2.34
 EV/EBITDA  3.40  4.86
 EV/Sales      0.47  0.37
 
Another important point I would like to make is the trend in free cash flow at HP.  HP has tended to deliver consistent free cash flow (defined as cash flow from operations less capital spending) on the order of $2 billion a quarter or about $8 billion a year.  I believe recent negative reports from tech companies exposed to HP as either an OEM, EMS or reseller (e.g. Mellanox) is reflective of HP trying to manage its cash flow to continue to show solid performance on this important financial metric.
 
Finally, the sentiment on HP is extremely negative on the street. Currently, there are only the equivalent of 2 buy ratings vs. 23 neutral ratings and 9 sell ratings.  The sell side clearly continues to view HP as a value trap given this composition of stock ratings.  Also, most IT executives I speak to view HP as a weak company with little prospects for any turnaround. This may end up being correct, but I think in this current age of increased shareholder activism, the recent Dell LBO and continued focus by HP on cash flow generation, HP is more of a Buy than a Sell.  Longer term, I am not yet convinced that HP will be a great stock or company, but in the short to intermediate term, I think the stock looks somewhat attractive.
 
Disclosure: I currently own shares of HP. I may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this report for consulting services for NT Advisors LLC. 

 

SDN: Open, Fragmented Chaos

I wanted to follow up on a prior blog post after attending a recent SDN conference where I also moderated an investment panel.  In summary, I walked away from this conference and reading other recent SDN news thinking that 2013 will be a year of increased entropy for the SDN market.  VCs will continue to fund new start-ups, incumbent large IT companies will announce SDN plans/roadmaps, users will demand open standards to avoid vendor lock-in and the press release and marketing onslaught will be intense.  From an investment perspective, I still think it is too early to make any definitive conclusions given all this disorder and timing of SDN revenues being significant still being a couple of years away, but I believe that existing merchant silicon suppliers like Broadcom can only benefit from the deployment SDN with little threats from start-ups, while Layer 4-7 based appliance companies like F5 are most at risk given the ultimate SDN architecture and significant VC start-up funding in this area. 

Users Want Open Standards: Not surprising, both enterprise and service provider end users are weary of being locked-in to single vendor or vendor coalitions. After all, one of the main goals of SDN is to unlock monolithic data center hardware and appliances to allow for more innovative and faster feature development.  What I think will be challenging here is any standards efforts typically involves multiple constituents with different agendas.  This tends to slow down the standards process and results in compromises in the ultimate standards that limit functionality and flexibility.  A very relevant example in the recent past was the standardization process for IP Multi-media Subsystem (IMS) in the telecommunications industry.   When I asked a senior technical executive from the telecom industry at the SDN conference on whether there were any lessons learned or best practices from the IMS standardization process that could be applied to SDN, the answer was not encouraging. Specifically, the executive mentioned how the standards process around IMS was tedious, took longer than expected, and resulted in compromises that ultimately left the standard somewhat inflexible for some future unforeseen requirements (e.g. certain aspects of machine to machine communications over 3G/4G wireless networks).   Although not yet formally announced, the new open-source Daylight controller consortium from traditional networking and IT vendors Cisco, Citrix, HP, IBM and NEC will be interesting to watch.  Is this is a true open-source initiative, or a coalition effort from those that benefit from the current processes in data center design, implementation and hardware sales that just want to keep the status quo as we transition to SDN over the next few years.

Fragmentation and Chaos: To me, the SDN market right now is both fragmented in terms of company functionality and chaotic in terms of vendor positioning and marketing.  I say fragmented as most start-ups (and public companies for that matter) I see are offering one or a few pieces of the overall SDN solution, but not one is all that encompassing. That make sense given how broad SDN is both in terms of architecture and functionality.  It is likely we will see continued funding of start-ups to fill in functions within the SDN functional grid as well as acquisitions as existing public companies and mature SDN start-ups seek to fill out their SDN offerings.  The F5 acquisition of LineRate was a recent example of this as an existing appliance based Application Delivery Controller company F5, acquired an SDN start-up focused on Application Delivery Control.  Thus, the fragmentation of the SDN market is likely to remain and supportive of continued VC funding, which will continue to fuel consolidation as mature start-ups, traditional networking, hardware and software companies seek to fill in the gaps of their SDN solution.  I continue to believe such a cycle and the ultimate timing of significant SDN revenues being 3 years away will make it highly unlikely any true SDN start-up goes public in the next two years.

I also characterize the SDN market as chaotic right now given the marketing onslaught of large technology companies in 2013.  In the past several days alone, we have seen initial indications of the open-source Daylight controller (e.g. expected to be supported by Cisco, Citrix, HP, IBM and NEC), SDN announcements from traditional vendors Ericsson and Huawei and ONUG releasing its top five recommendations to enable Open Networking.   While 2012 was the year start-ups garnered virtually all the attention in the SDN market, 2013 seems to be the year that technology incumbents are scrambling for mind share through coalitions, product launches/roadmaps and acquisitions.  On top of these developments, venture capitalists on the panel I moderated at the SDN conference indicated they expect further investments in 2013 for new SDN start-ups.   Seems like the SDN crescendo will only intensify throughout the year.

Investment Thoughts:  My investment thesis around SDN continues to evolve as I continue to digest new information.  I provide some takeaways from the investment panel I moderated at the SDN conference below, which are of-course subject to change in the future as new information becomes available.   

  1. Little Competition for Merchant Silicon Companies: Everyone agrees that there will be strong demand for merchant silicon for new hardware platforms as the SDN market develops.  On the other hand, it appears VCs do not want to fund merchant silicon start-ups given the high R&D and other costs associated with semiconductor companies vs. software companies.  Thus, my conclusion is that Broadcom and maybe Marvel (if they can get some traction with their merchant silicon products) could be companies to benefit from the growth of SDN, although it will take a few years for SDN to truly drive merchant silicon sales. Intel would be another beneficiary, but merchant silicon would likely be too small of a business for such a large semiconductor company.
  2. Layer 4-7 Companies More At Risk Than Cisco: While all incumbent data center equipment suppliers are potentially at risk from the future of SDN, I think special purpose appliance based Layer 4-7 companies like F5 are more vulnerable than Cisco.   I say this because the ultimate SDN architecture will still require physical switching fabrics in the data center. Perhaps these fabrics will be merchant silicon based and Cisco will suffer share loss or margin pressure, but perhaps not.  On the other hand, the stand alone Layer 4-7 appliance is not present in the future SDN based data center, but rather replaced by a pure software solution in the application layer.  While its possible companies like F5 can pivot and transition their business models to be the suppliers of such software, the VC community seems intent on funding talented start-ups to attack this technology discontinuity while at the same time they are not funding merchant silicon companies at all and seem to be rarely funding data center fabric companies. 

Disclosure: I currently own shares of Cisco, HP, Marvel and Ericsson mentioned in this report. I may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this report for consulting services for NT Advisors LLC.