I recently wrote an article on Seeking Alpha on my views on why Juniper is currently outpacing Cisco in the router market and how this is likely to continue through most of 2014. Specifically, Cisco’s relatively older edge routing platforms vs. Juniper and the likelihood that Cisco has confused customers in the core routing market given two different product introductions in 2013 may be reasons for Cisco’s relative underperformance vs. Juniper. One key data point to watch in 2014 for both Cisco and Juniper in the router market is AT&T’s Domain 2.0 process, which is likely to be completed by mid-year. Given AT&T’s desire to maximize free cash flow given increasing investor concerns in this area (i.e. AT&T’s stock price fell the day after it reported earnings given a lower free cash flow outlook for 2014 vs. 2013), it is likely that product pricing will be a key factor in the Domain 2.0 vendor selection process, especially if Cisco continues to lose share to Juniper and Alcatel-Lucent in the router market in 2014 and it seeks to stop this trend by being more aggressive in the AT&T opportunity.
China ranks as the world’s largest country by population, second in annual GDP and is likely to rank second in terms of total Information Technology (IT) spending in 2013 at about 10% of global IT spending. It is estimated by industry analysts that China will grow its IT spending by close to 10% per year over the next decade as IT spending only represents about 2% of its GDP which is less than half the level of more developed countries like the US. While China represents a large and rapidly growing market for US technology companies, the path to success in this market has proven difficult and sometimes impossible due to indigenous suppliers, intellectual property protection and software piracy issues, pricing challenges and other unique market conditions. China has also grown its own global technology powerhouses in certain industries like communications equipment and personal computers, materially impacting the competitive dynamics for traditional US and European players in not just the China market, but also the entire global technology market. Finally, China has also developed its own Internet powerhouse companies that have made it difficult for leading US Internet and social media companies to succeed in China. Is China “friend or foe” for US technology companies, and has history provided technology companies any lessons on sustainable business practices that can be applied to the Chinese market?
Over the past three decades there have been many failures and lackluster successes by US technology companies seeking to enter and profitably grow in the China market. A high profile example was Google, who decided to exit the China market in 2010 after only about five years of formally entering the market with its own development center in China (and an earlier failed attempt to acquire local competitor Baidu). Baidu’s market share only increased from the mid 40s to the mid 60s in the five years following Google’s entry, which was significantly higher than the 30%-35% share that Google was able to achieve during that period. While Google pointed to censorship issues as the main driver to leaving the China market, it was also clearly the case that Baidu did a better job of understating the local market (e.g. Mandarin language searches, music downloads that “crossed” the line on piracy issues etc.) which contributed to Google not being a success in the search engine market in China as it was in other markets around the world.
Google was not the only US Internet giant that failed to achieve its goals in China, as Yahoo and EBay entered and exited as well. Both used acquisitions of Chinese-based companies as part of their respective entry strategies, but Yahoo could not effectively compete with Baidu in the search market while eBay lost out to Taobao.com (owned by Alibaba) in the online auction market. In both cases, both eBay and Yahoo did not do a good job in understanding the local China market nuances for search and on-line auctions. Yahoo at least made a financially smart decision to exit the market and invest in competitor Alibaba, which took over its Internet operations. It is estimated by some analysts that Yahoo’s investment in Alibaba is worth 50% or much more of Yahoo’s current market capitalization.
In all the cases above, US Internet companies stopped their efforts in China within about a five-year period. While the Internet may move a rapid pace of innovation, business success in China, especially in the technology sector, takes a much longer-term commitment. Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, initially stated that China had 5,000 years of history and Google would have 5,000 years of patience in China. As it turned out, Google, eBay and Yahoo only had about 5 years of loss-making patience. Unfortunately for US Internet companies, China continues to grow much faster than the US in on-line sales and is likely to surpass the US within the next couple of years as evident by China “crushing” the on-lines sales record on November 11th, 2013 as part of China’s annual “Single’s Day” national promotion.
The concern over protecting IP and pirating software has been an obstacle for US technology companies seeking to expand their sales business operations in China. Taking legal action by US technology companies has often backfired. For example, Cisco Systems’ first-ever corporate lawsuit on IP was against Chinese based Huawei in 2003, which allegedly copied Cisco manuals and software code. Cisco dropped the lawsuit in 2004 after remedy actions by Huawei, but in my view the lawsuit cost Cisco more in reputational risk than any benefit from the lawsuit. To this day, China represents less than 5% of Cisco’s total sales in China and the company often highlights China as being “unique” for Cisco when discussing its sub-par performance in the country. Microsoft has faced software piracy issues around Windows for PCs in China since the company entered the market in 1992. The issue of piracy in China is still an issue today for Microsoft as evidenced from its recent earnings call where it disclosed for the first time the performance of its Windows business with and without China (i.e. Windows is declining more rapidly in China than the rest of the world). Microsoft is hoping to reduce piracy of software by selling cloud-based versions of its consumer software, thus, hopefully eliminating over time the availability of pirated software disks sold on the streets.
Cisco’s problems in China have intensified recently as the company’s orders from China fell 18% in its recent October 2013 quarter. Cisco is likely feeling the backlash of Huawei’s years of struggle and ultimate failure in building a US business, which was exacerbated by recent press reports on spying by the US National Security Agency. Other large US technology companies like IBM and HP also reported recent weakness in China and Qualcomm has made public comments that U.S. restrictions on Chinese companies and revelations about surveillance by the NSA are impacting its business in China. As a result of these and other recent data points, there is now a growing view on Wall Street that US tech firms are seeing slowing sales in China due to the NSA spying claims. It is interesting, however, that Franco-American company Alcatel-Lucent announced the day after Cisco report its poor China results that it had won the largest market share in China Mobile’s network for Enhanced Packet Core (EPC) technology among all vendors (including Chinese based vendors). Alcatel-Lucent sells in China through a joint venture established in 1984. Perhaps Alcatel-Lucent is not feeling the same issues as other large US technology firms because it is technically a French company, but it’s long standing JV and the relationships established by this JV in China also has likely played a role in its ability to so far overcome the political backlash that other large US technology companies have experienced.
While China based Internet companies like Baidu (search engine), Alibaba (e-commerce) and Tencent (social media and gaming), have generally become dominant in their home market, China based IT centric companies Huawei and Lenovo have established global businesses which have led to weakening fundamentals for Western suppliers of communications equipment and personal computers. Huawei generated sales of $35.4 billion in 2012 and is now comparable in size to Western leaders Ericsson and Cisco. The dramatic success of Huawei over the past fifteen years contributed to the bankruptcy of Nortel, the failed mergers of Alcatel with Lucent and Nokia with Siemens, and the lackluster stock performance of Ericsson and Cisco. Lenovo became the world’s largest supplier of personal computers in 2Q13 with both IDC and Gartner estimating their market share at 16.7% surpassing both HP and Dell for the first time. In 2009, Lenovo ranked fourth in the world in PC shipments with about 7% share. While HP and Dell continue to suffer from the fundamental shift from PCs to tablets and smartphones, the loss of market share to Lenovo over the past few years intensified this fundamental issue for both companies and was likely a contributing factor to Dell deciding to go private through an LBO to realign the company and pursue a more Enterprise IT and Services strategy.
While US Internet companies and global IT equipment suppliers such as Microsoft, Cisco, HP and others have had either difficulties succeeding in the China market, or face significant competitive pressures from China based IT global competitors such as Huawei and Lenovo, there are examples of US technology companies that have succeeded in selling in China and competing globally against Chinese based competitors over an extended period of time and who so far, have not publicly acknowledged any political pressure on their respective businesses. Two such companies are Apple and Corning. Apple currently generates about 15% of total sales from Greater China and its operating margin in China is generally comparable with other regions. This level of success has been achieved with Apple not yet selling iPhones to China Mobile, the largest mobile operator in the world based on subscribers. Apple has also been vocal and active on improving working conditions in China among its supply chain companies including conducting annual audits on its suppliers; thus, thus likely helping its reputation in the country. Corning has been in China for 25 years and competes effectively in catalytic converter substrates, LCD glass display and fiber optic cable. The Greater China Region represents 26% of Corning total sales and is the company’s largest country by annual sales. Corning attributes it success in China to having a very long-term perspective, developing relationships with key leaders at the local and national level on important issues such as IP protection, investing in local manufacturing and developing extra checks and balances on potential IP protection issues.
While there is no magic formula for succeeding in the China market as a technology company, there are some common threads among companies that have shown success in the market. These include, truly showing (not saying) a long-term commitment to the country, developing key relationships (including JVs) at the local and national level to help support a fair playing field and protection of IP, local manufacturing through long lived assets and R&D, understanding the risks of reputational damage when taking legal or other public action against a local company and enacting unique processes to help ensure IP is maintained. Having products or a distribution of products that make pirating or copying of your products difficult, is also a big plus.
Note: The above article first appeared in the November 2013 issue of “The Cornerstone Journal of Sustainable Finance & BankingSM”
I recently wrote an article on Seeking Alpha on Cisco, which can be found on this link. The key points in the article are as follows:
Cisco really surprised Wall Street when it reported last week as its guided to a decline in revenues of 8%-10% year over year. Cisco has never reported such a decline when the US is not in a recession. With US GDP growth improving in the past three quarters, but Cisco’s orders decelerating, the guidance Cisco provided is disturbing.
The weak guidance is likely due to three main points:
1. Cisco is not focused on growing its set top box business, as the company de-emphasizes lower margin solutions/products for the home given the exit of its Consumer business a few years ago and the sale of its Linksys home networking business.
2. Cisco if facing major product transitions in high end switching and routing that are likely to impact year over year sales growth for 2-4 quarters.
3. Cisco is fighting an emerging but significant battle against cloud commoditization as Amazon and other cloud operators deploy lower cost “white box” networking equipment rather than traditional equipment from companies like Cisco. Of the three issues Cisco is facing, this is the one that investors will focus on the most longer term in determining whether to invest in the stock or not. Cisco’s recent launch of Insieme/ACI is how the company plans to attack the threat of “white box” networking.
Cisco’s weak guidance and commentary that business slowed at the end of the quarter combined with overall finished goods inventories being slightly up sequentially is likely to lead to Cisco managing down inventories in the next quarter. This may result in lower than expected orders to Cisco’s supply chain. Suppliers and contract manufacturers that are exposed to Cisco could be impacted by these reduced orders. Supply chain companies that recently have had high exposure to Cisco include Cavium, EZchip and Finisar, although it is fair to say these stocks have already been hit post Cisco’s results and may be discounting the bad news.
Recent earnings reports from technology powerhouses of the past couple of decades exemplify that these prior titans are all now challenged by lack of revenue growth, margin compression and/or disruptions from new technologies. In particular, Cisco, Dell, IBM, Intel, HP, Microsoft and Oracle all either suffered from weak revenue and/or margin results in their most recent respective earnings results. Perhaps the confluence of weak results was coincident with the lack of global GDP growth and indicative that these large companies are all suffering from the “law of large numbers” as they have all become mature companies with exposure to legacy businesses (e.g. personal computers, Ethernet switching and structured relational databases etc.) that they all helped define and conquer in the prior three decades? If true, however, the boards of these companies have to be cognizant of increasing shareholder activism in the technology industry and that more shareholder friendly actions in the form of increased capital returns to shareholders, potential company breakups and leadership changes will need to be considered in addition to traditional technology management actions such as using M&A to spur growth. The fall from grace of HP prior to Meg Whitman being named CEO was unfortunately an example of a poor use of company cash for M&A, lack of internal investment for innovation and leadership selection choices and raises the question on whether an earlier action by an activist would have helped HP and its board make better decisions.
Recent successes of shareholder activism, which were not originally supported by company boards in large and “legacy” technology companies, have often led to favorable shareholder returns. Such positive stock returns, will likely encourage further activism in my view from not only the traditional activists but from traditional “long only” investment funds. The positive returns for shareholders in other “legacy” technology companies Motorola, Yahoo and Dell where activists became involved and ultimately led to a company breakup for Motorola, new leadership for Yahoo and a higher acquisition price for Dell in its planned LBO all resulted in favorable returns for shareholders. Carl Icahn’s recent tweets regarding his recent investment in Apple, the largest technology company as measured by market capitalization, and discussions with Apple CEO Tim Cook regarding increasing capital returns for shareholders is further evidence of activism taking on the cash rich nature and relatively low valuation of large technology companies.
The recent case of Microsoft is also telling in regard to increased activism playing a role in leadership selection and potentially strategy change. The fact that Microsoft is currently the third largest technology company in the world based on market capitalization, is not deterring activism from playing a role at this critical point in the company’s history. In August of 2013, Microsoft offered a board seat to activist investor fund ValueAct Capital Management that had been pressing for a change of the CEO of company. I also recall a few occasions during my career as a technology sell side analyst visiting institutional investor accounts around the same time as Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. I found it interesting that investors would tell me how they made it a point to tell Mr. Ballmer that Microsoft needed to consider selling or exiting certain businesses, breaking up the company or other actions to enhance shareholder returns, but that such requests were falling on deaf ears. When it was announced that Steve Ballmer would retire from Microsoft on August 23rd, Microsoft’s market capitalization rose by ~$20 billion. After the announcement on September 2nd that Microsoft would acquire Nokia’s Device and Services business, thus doubling down on its current strategy even as a new CEO was not yet identified, Microsoft shares gave up about $13 billion in market capitalization.
Investors not only saw the Nokia acquisition as doubling down on the prior strategy, but at the time also the increased likelihood that Stephen Elop, current Nokia CEO and former executive at Microsoft, would be the next CEO of Microsoft and potentially maintain the status quo of Steve Ballmer’s tenure. The opportunity to be heard and play a role in the future of Microsoft, however, was not going to be lost as shareholder activism led to several of Microsoft’s largest shareholders are putting pressure on the board of Microsoft to consider a CEO with “turn around” experience rather than someone who is going to just maintain the status quo. It will certainly be interesting to see how the CEO selection of Microsoft develops and how activism will likely play a role in the CEP selection as well as the potential ongoing strategy post the selection. The recent rally in Microsoft stock to a new 10 year high is a likely a sign that investors “smell” a positive leadership change, that will unlock value at the company.
Note: The basis for this article was originally published in the inaugural issue of the “Cornerstone Journal of Sustainable Finance and Banking” published in October 2013.
I also recently was interviewed on Bloomberg TV on the topic of Activism in The Technology Sector. The interviewed can be viewed here
While most Cisco investors will be primarily focused on the company’s official launch of the Insieme Nexus 9000 data center product on November 6th and the company’s earnings report on November 13th, I wanted to share my opinion on what Cisco may be working on to disrupt the traditional wireless infrastructure market. CEO John Chambers recently made some bold statements in an interview with Barron’s stating that Cisco has invested in a start-up as part of the company’s disruptive plan to enter the traditional wireless infrastructure market currently served by Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson (ERIC), Huawei and Nokia Solutions and Networks (NOK). My guess as to what Cisco is considering for this disruption is Cloud-Radio Access Network (C-RAN) technology. In theory, C-RAN technology aims to centralize (“in the cloud”) the baseband processing done at each cell site base station in wireless networks resulting in a more optimized utilization of baseband resources. In addition, C-RAN facilitates joint processing and scheduling between various cell sites allowing for reduced interference, increased throughput and improved performance of the network. C-RAN also supports less energy consumption, which would support Cisco’s sustainability efforts and a more environmentally friendly deployment of wireless networks. C-RAN also fits the Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) framework, which Cisco aims to exploit for new revenue streams. Commercial deployment of C-RAN technology is probably at least a couple of years away, but given the traditional wireless infrastructure market which Cisco does not current play in is $40+ billion in size, and the company has already made $2 billion of wireless acquisitions in the last year in other segments of the wireless market, it would seem the logical path for Cisco to try to enter the wireless market. Time will tell what Cisco actually is planning for entry into the wireless infrastructure market.
For more information on the topic of Cisco potentially investing in C-RAN technology and my current thoughts on Cisco’s stock, please visit my recent article on seekingalpha.com.
I recently wrote an article on Seeking Alpha discussing my view on the potential strategic objectives of Cisco’s Insieme spin-in. Cisco plans to formally announce the Insieme product on November 6th in NY. A quick summary of the article on Seeking Alpha is as follows:
The three main strategic objectives of Insieme in my view are:
– Attack Nicira/VMware’s (VMW) pure software approach to Network Virtualization via a converged hardware/software approach to be delivered by Insieme’s Application Centric Infrastructure solution.
– Attack lower cost and “White Box” data center Ethernet switches potentially enabled by VMware and/or Software Defined Networking (SDN) as Insieme is likely to have significant improvement in price/port metrics for Ethernet switching. Its interesting that John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, highlighted the “White Box” switch as a major threat to Cisco just a week or so ago in a Barron’s interview, knowing that the Insieme launch is just a few weeks away.
– Expand into non-traditional markets or markets with limited market share in the data center via virtual implementations of traditional security and Layer 4-7 appliances (and perhaps even some elements of flash storage given Cisco’s recent acquisition of privately held WHIPTAIL)
Over the past 18 months, Cisco has been aggressive in filling its product weaknesses via acquisitions (e.g. Sourcefire in security) and addressing the market’s concerns around network virtualization and SDN. The Insieme launch, in conjunction with prior announcements around Cisco ONE and OpenDaylight, will likely be the last Big Bang effort by Cisco in 2013 to take on the threat of VMware/Nicira and convince the market that Cisco has the right data center architecture for the future of networking as well as diminishing the threat of the “White Box” network.
On September 23rd, AT&T issued a press release on Domain 2.0, which outlines at a high level its next generation network vision and supplier strategy. As part of this strategy, AT&T plans to use Domain 2.0 to transform its network through utilization of Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV). In doing so, AT&T plans to enhance time to market and flexibility of new services as well as beginning a downward trend in capital spending likely beginning in 2016. The goal is to achieve a downward bias in capital spending through separating hardware from software and control plane from data plane in traditional network infrastructure products while also improving software management and control. The goals of Domain 2.0 are more focused on a network transition, faster service creation and lower capital spending, as compared to the goals of the 2009 Domain 1.0, which were to reduce cost and time to market for new services by dramatically reducing AT&T’s supplier base to a much smaller set of strategic suppliers/integrators.
While AT&T is certainly sincere in its plans to evolve towards SDN and NFV, I also think the public announcement of the Domain 2.0 strategy serves as a message to its shareholders that through the implementation of Domain 2.0, AT&T expects capital spending to begin to decline starting in 2016. This is an important message from AT&T as it is likely to have increasing pressure on its cash flow and cash needs beginning in 2014 given higher cash taxes and potentially a significant acquisition overseas.
Wall Street analysts that cover AT&T have often written that the company will likely have to pay higher cash taxes in 2014 unless the current bonus depreciation rules get extended. The increase in cash taxes beginning in 2014 is likely to raise the dividend payout ratio at AT&T from around 65%-70% to close to 75% next year according to analyst reports. At the same time, AT&T has a history of raising its dividend annually. The likelihood of higher cash taxes and dividends next year, thus, will result in lower available cash for stock buybacks and acquisitions. Clearly AT&T would like a way to reduce its capital spending if possible.
Regarding acquisitions, the press and Wall Street analysts have recently both written that AT&T is likely to make a significant international acquisition in 2014 and some are guessing that Vodafone (post its sale of its ownership of Verizon Wireless to Verizon) is a likely target. A large acquisition on the scale of Vodafone is likely to require the addition of significant debt on AT&T’s balance sheet (e.g. some analysts suggesting over $70 billion), resulting in additional debt service and a more levered balance sheet.
In my view, the public messaging of Domain 2.0 was targeted to two distinct audiences, namely, AT&T shareholders and equipment suppliers. For its shareholders, AT&T was messaging that it plans to help offset the increasing dividend payout ratio and potential higher debt service due to any future acquisition through a lower capital spending trend after Domain 2.0 begins to be implemented. For its equipment suppliers, AT&T was messaging that it plans to use SDN and NFV to extract a more agile and lower cost network and to be prepared for this change through lower pricing facilitated through separation of hardware/software and control/data planes (not that the equipment vendors really needed any public messaging from AT&T on lower prices as that is business as usual). In a sense, AT&T is partly using this press release to remind its equipment suppliers know the “hammer” on pricing is coming and be prepared to help them migrate towards an SDN/NFV architecture or potentially be eliminated as suppliers in Domain 2.0.
Coincidently, Barron’s interviewed the CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, the same week that AT&T issued its Domain 2.0 press release. According to the Barron’s article, when asked what Cisco’s biggest competitive threat is, Chambers mentioned that at or near the top of the list are service providers who just buy cheap “white box” routers and switches. While it may be just a coincidence that Chambers made this comment just a few days after AT&T made the public release of Domain 2.0, which implies a migration towards less software intensive routers and switches, its does raise the question on how serious AT&T will be in its migration plans to SDN/NFV and whether Cisco is willing to adjust to meet the needs of AT&T.
Most significant equipment suppliers to AT&T typically have a high dependency to AT&T with sales typically near or above 10% of total company sales (e.g. Ciena, Alcatel-Lucent, Juniper, Adtran etc.). Given the broad nature of Cisco’s business, however, AT&T is not as material a customer to Cisco as it is to other equipment suppliers. While not as significant a customer, AT&T is an important customer to Cisco, and Cisco wants to expand its presence at AT&T beyond routing and switching to also include optical equipment given its recent product launches that converge optical and packet technologies into new platforms. The convergence of packet and optical technologies is also a likely part of Domain 2.0 given this convergence is an enabler of reducing network cost as IP packets and flows can be carried more cost effectively in a converged IP/Optical network.
So the question is, who will flinch in AT&T’s path towards Domain 2.0, Cisco or AT&T. AT&T has a network vision and higher priorities for its cash in the form of cash taxes, dividends and acquisitions and will seek to reduce capital spending in the future. While these higher priorities always existed, SDN and NFV now provide an architectural change that could facilitate lower capital spending in the future. Cisco is the largest and strongest financial company that spans both packet and optical technologies among AT&T’s suppliers; is not heavily dependent on AT&T as a customer as compared to most other suppliers to AT&T; and has a large installed base at AT&T. Cisco will not easily submit to separately selling its hardware from software and data plane from control plane in Layer 2/3 and converged optical/packet products. It will be clearly be an interesting process to watch, one that will likely have ramifications for other service provider SDN network migrations in the future.
Disclosure: NT Advisors LLC may in the past, present or future solicited or generated consulting services from any company mentioned in this post.
I recently wrote some articles on SeekingAlpha.com on the Cisco/EMC/VMware dichotomous relationship, Palo Alto Networks and Infoblox. I have provided a quick summary and links to these articles below.
Cisco/EMC/VMware: I continue to be positive on Cisco stock and expect the company to formally launch its widely anticipated Insieme product at the Interop NY trade show in October. CEO John Chambers will be keynoting at the Interop conference. I do not think John has done a keynote at an Interop trade show for many years, so it is likely Cisco wants to use this trade show as a platform to make a big announcement. The launch of Insieme, the recent acquisition by Cisco of solid state drive storage vendor WHIPTAIL and the introduction of the NSX network virtualization platform by VMware at VMworld a few weeks ago continue to highlight the increasingly dichotomous relationship between Cisco and EMC/VMware. I think Cisco and EMC/VMware will continue to promote their VCE partnership which has been successful to date, but at the same time seek to both be the leading player in the virtual and physical domains of the emerging next generation software defined data center. At some point, one has to question when one of these companies makes a strategic move that could truly threaten the VCE relationship.
Palo Alto Networks: While Palo Alto Networks remains a high growth company and leader in the security market, I am not positive on the stock given its high valuation, the low growth nature of the overall security firewall appliance market and the beginning shift in security spending towards cloud based security solutions. Palo Alto does have a cloud based product called WildFire, and thus could capture a good part of the shift in security spend. To me, the success or lack of success of WildFire will be the main catalyst to watch for the stock in the longer term as well as the ultimate outcome of its ongoing litigation with Juniper Networks. As a side note, I also was not a big fan of the company’s decision to exclude its legal expense related to its ongoing litigation with Juniper from its pro-forma guidance. To me legal expenses related to lawsuits, inventory write-downs etc. are part of ongoing operations and should not be excluded from pro-forma results. Obviously, there are many different opinions on this topic and I am sure Palo Alto had some valid reasons whey they chose to exclude the legal expense from their guidance.
Infoblox: I have been positive on Infoblox given it has a leadership position in a unique niche in the automated network control market and is seeing new product success via their DNS firewall security product. DNS cyber attacks are becoming more prevalent, which could set the framework for increased awareness and demand for the Infoblox DNS firewall. The stock, however, has had a significant appreciation this year and at this point the valuation probably does not support significant upside from these levels.
Following up on my most recent post on July 8th, I continue to see a slow but steady drifting upward of both telecom and networking capital spending. An increasing competitive environment in the US wireless industry, the likely ramp of LTE spending in China in 2014 and the beginning signs of telecom spending bottoming in Europe should support service provider centric communications equipment stocks. In addition, while enterprise centric IT spending has not shown as vibrant of a recovery, recent results from distributors and other supply chain companies are starting to point to a recovery in enterprise networking spending.
Stocks that I have liked and continue to like in this current environment are Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and JDSU. While I continue to like all three of these names, I think the potential returns from current levels are not as significant as the respective returns over the past year. Specifically, I am looking for returns of 10%-20% over the next several months to year for both Cisco and JDSU, while ALU may have a bit more upside, yet with more risk as well.
Both Cisco and JDSU report earnings this week. Wall Street is generally looking for Cisco to report results that are slightly better than consensus estimates, while there is a mixed view on JDSU going into its earnings. The overwhelming consensus that Cisco will report a slightly better than expected quarter is a bit concerning as there seems to be little controversy going into results as compared to prior quarters. Thus, expectations are generally positive for Cisco, which leaves little room for any disappointment in their results. Even so, however, most signs seem to be positive for Cisco going into its results, including positive data points from its supply chain in 2Q results (e.g. distributors, contract manufacturers etc.), the continued strength in telecom capital spending in the routing area (as witnessed from both ALU and Juniper results) and a generally improving IT spending environment. In addition, Cisco will be reporting its fourth fiscal report when it reports this week, which is generally a strong bookings quarter for Cisco. This should support a solid year end backlog when results are reported.
With regard to JDSU, there is a mixed view going into their results, as most of its peers in the test and measurement business (e.g. Ixia, Spirent etc.) reported disappointing results. On the other hand, optical component suppliers (e.g. Finisar, Alliance Fiber etc.) have generally reported (or pre-announced) positive earnings results. Thus, there is more uncertainty around JDSU’s upcoming results and guidance. My sense is if JDSU does offer either disappointing results and/or guidance, Wall Street will look at it as a buying opportunity as both these business segments are likely poised to improve in 2H13.
For my recent views on the security market post Cisco’s acquisition of Sourcefire, check out the following link.
Disclosures: I am currently long Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and JDSU. NT Advisors LLC may in the past, present or future solicit consulting business or have generated consulting business from any company mentioned in this post.
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.