Solid-state storage market: OEM now, M&A later?

Contact: Brenon Daly

As buoyant as the Nasdaq has been so far this year, few stocks can come close to matching the stunning 10-fold rise of STEC Inc. After opening the year at about $4, shares in the maker of solid-state drives (SSDs) inched above $40 earlier this month. Perhaps inevitably, gravity (in the form of Wall Street concern over increased competition) has pulled STEC back down over the past week. Shares closed Wednesday at $30.85, leaving the company still with a cool $1.5bn market capitalization.

In a recent report, my colleague Henry Baltazar notes that STEC is the central player in the emerging SSD segment, one that could very well change the face of the multibillion-dollar server and storage markets. SSDs are much faster and far more efficient than traditional hard drives and disk-based storage arrays. Also, the prices of SSDs have come down sharply as they have moved from costly DRAM-based to flash-memory-based drives. Taken together, the pitch of ‘better, cheaper, faster’ has spurred phenomenal growth in the SSD space. For its part, STEC’s sales are projected to hit $350m in 2009, an increase of more than 50% in the midst of one of the softest IT spending environments in recent years.

This trend, of course, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the server and storage giants. So far, however, when these companies have run the ‘buy-build-partner’ calculus for the SSD sector, most have opted to partner. STEC, for instance, has OEM deals in place with nearly all of the major server and storage players, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and a longstanding accord with EMC. As mentioned, though, competition is heating up as startups look to get established in this fast-growing market. New companies entering the space include Pliant Technology and SandForce (neither of which has announced any OEM agreements of its own so far), plus Fusion-io, which has OEM deals with HP and IBM, as well as reseller agreements with Dell and other vendors. If the SSD market continues to take off, we could certainly imagine one or more of these startups getting snapped up.