Blue-sky thinking on a bidding war for Isilon

Contact: Brenon Daly

Based on the two previous multibillion-dollar deals in the storage industry, we should be bracing for a bidding war around Isilon Systems. Recall that Data Domain last year and 3PAR this summer each attracted after-the-fact suitors that drove up the price on both by more than a few dollars. But in the case of Isilon, we don’t actually see the process going to a public auction.

For starters, there’s the not-insignificant matter of the buy-in bid, which currently values Isilon more richly (on a price-to-sales ratio) than either Data Domain or 3PAR. (As we note in our full report on EMC’s planned purchase, Isilon is being taken off the market at its highest-ever price, roughly five times the level where the company started the year and roughly twice where it traded just three months ago.)

Setting aside Isilon’s acrophobia-inducing valuation, which company could we imagine putting in a topping bid? Admittedly, that requires a rather vivid imagination, but one name we could come up with is Dell. (My colleague, Henry Baltazar, looked at Isilon and other potential targets for Dell in a recent report.) The company has already demonstrated a willingness to spend big to build out its storage portfolio, taking home EqualLogic three years ago and making an unsuccessful run at 3PAR this summer. (If nothing else, Dell’s effort to land 3PAR signaled that the tech giant doesn’t appear content to simply continue its long-term reliance on EMC for storage business. We suspect that marriage of convenience may well be on the rocks.)

Not that we necessarily expect it to happen, but Isilon would nonetheless bring Dell a fast-growing storage vendor (roughly 60% revenue growth for 2010) and a solid roster of more than 1,500 customers, which is roughly twice the number it would have picked up with 3PAR.

Granted, there would be some overlap with the NAS technology Dell obtained with Exanet earlier this year. But Isilon would significantly enhance that, as well as fit well with Dell’s more recent storage purchase, Ocarina Networks. (Isilon and Ocarina actually had a partnership, putting Ocarina’s digital image de-duplication technology in front of Isilon. That’s particularly useful for storage requirements for media and entertainment companies, which account for one-third of revenue at Isilon.) Again, we highly doubt that Dell plans to start a bidding war for Isilon. But it’s enough to get us thinking.