What happened to the storage sector’s Class of 2007?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Back in mid-2007, BlueArc was one of a quartet of storage vendors that put in their paperwork to go public during those go-go days on the stock market. However, if the NAS systems specialist, which recently re-filed its prospectus, does manage to see through its offering on this go-round, it will find itself very much alone. All three of BlueArc’s would-be fellow public storage contemporaries have been consumed by larger tech companies. The total bill for those three transactions: $4.8bn.

Dell would have had a hat trick for the Class of 2007 storage firms, if not for Hewlett-Packard. As it was, the Round Rock, Texas-based vendor took home EqualLogic in November 2007 before that company could even go public and then erased Compellent Technologies from the NYSE last December. Of course, Dell was lead bidder for 3PAR last summer, too, before losing out to HP. (And those deals are just for the big storage providers that filed their S1s in 2007. If we move back a year to 2006, another two vendors – Double-Take Software and Isilon Systems – that debuted that year were both gobbled up in 2010.)

With all this consolidation, where does that leave BlueArc? As we penciled out in our report on its planned IPO, the company is almost certain to be worth less when it does hit the market than it would have been worth before the Great Recession. Somewhat perversely, that’s true even though BlueArc will be twice the size that it was when it put in its prospectus in 2007.

If the company finds that prospect too demoralizing, it could always follow its fellow filers and opt for a trade sale. We would have put forward Oracle as a possible buyer of BlueArc, in a kind of ‘discount’ play for NetApp. But that seems even less likely since Oracle rolled in Pillar Data Systems on Wednesday morning. So, it looks like either HDS decides that it wants to own its OEM partner outright or BlueArc (finally) hits the market.

Big is back (sort of)

Contact: Brenon Daly

The number of big-ticket deals in 2010 jumped by one-quarter from the level posted in each of the past two years, an indication that buyers are once again open to a bit more risk. We tallied 40 transactions valued at $1bn or more last year, up from 32 in 2009 and 33 in 2008. One of the reasons for the rise in 2010 – unlike the two previous years – is that the acquirers had to top a pretty bullish tech market to secure their deals. Companies including Isilon Systems, Netezza, ArcSight and 3PAR all got taken off the board last year at their highest-ever valuation.

Also unlike the two previous years, we had a number of ‘serial shoppers’ on the list. Hewlett-Packard inked three 10-digit deals in 2010, while IBM and Intel each closed two of the big transactions as well. And it wasn’t just strategic buyers. The Carlyle Group announced a pair of billion-dollar acquisitions – on back-to-back days, no less. Overall, buyout shops accounted for seven deals last year valued at more than $1bn, up from four in 2008 and five in 2009.

10-digit transactions

Year Number of deals worth $1bn+
2010 40
2009 32
2008 33
2007 79
2006 74
2005 70

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

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.

Isilon and 3PAR: strikingly similar storage sales

Contact: Brenon Daly

EMC’s planned purchase of Isilon Systems comes as the second storage acquisition valued at more than $2bn in just three months. In fact, it lines up rather closely on a number of fronts with the other recent big-ticket storage deal, Hewlett-Packard’s pickup of 3PAR. For starters, the adviser. Qatalyst Partners got sole print for helping to sell 3PAR, and also had a hand in the process for Isilon. (Morgan Stanley and Qatalyst teamed up on the sell side.)

In terms of financial results, both Isilon and 3PAR are very similar. The two vendors were both generating about $200m in trailing revenue and only modest amounts of cash flow at the time of their acquisitions. (Both also had slightly more than $100m in cash on hand, thanks primarily to their recent IPOs.) That means both Isilon and 3PAR secured a valuation of more than 10 times trailing revenue in their sales to EMC and HP, respectively. If anything, Isilon is garnering an even richer valuation at 12.8x trailing 12-month sales and 8.7x projected 2011 sales.

And finally, both Isilon and 3PAR are being taken off the market at their highest-ever valuations, with acquisition offers of about $33 for each share. (That was the exact clearing bid for 3PAR, which came after two rounds of bumped bids, while Isilon shareholders are set to pocket $33.85 for each of their shares.) Given that Isilon and 3PAR were trading in the single digits just a few months before their acquisitions, shareholders in both storage vendors have reason to smile.

The thin air around Isilon

Contact: Brenon Daly

Regardless of the fact that Isilon Systems hasn’t traded on anything remotely connected to its underlying financial performance for a long time, the NAS vendor nonetheless reported third-quarter results earlier today. As these things go, it was a strong report: sales up 77% and a solid profit, reversing a year-ago loss.

The results pushed shares up about a buck to $28 each in mid-Thursday trading. That continues a run that has seen the stock nearly quadrupled so far this year, giving the storage company a mind-blowing valuation of nearly $1.8bn. The third-quarter report notwithstanding, much of that run has been spurred by acquisition speculation, with EMC reportedly in exclusive talks to acquire Isilon.

To understand how detached Isilon’s valuation is from reality, consider this: For every dollar of earnings that Isilon is projected to bring in this year, investors are valuing that at $100. That’s right, a single greenback is worth almost 100 times that amount to Isilon’s market cap. Through the first three quarters of the year, Isilon posted GAAP net income of $7m. Even assuming that the company has a blowout fourth quarter, full-year 2010 earnings are still likely to come in below $20m. Meanwhile, its equity value continues to creep toward $2bn.

Even on a more conventional measure, Isilon’s valuation ratio is still highly inflated: For every dollar in sales the company brings in, investors are valuing that at $10. At an equity value of $1.8bn, Isilon is currently trading at 10 times current-year revenue, and almost eight times next year’s revenue. Keep in mind, too, that those valuations don’t take into account any acquisition premium that would undoubtedly figure into the deal. Every dollar that a bid comes in above Isilon’s current market price adds more than $75m to the company’s price tag. That’s assuming, of course, that a bid comes.