3PAR’s rocketing valuation; belief, scarcity and little bit of luck

I had the opportunity to meet up with David Scott, CEO of 3PAR, the current belle of the ball in storage as the bidding war between HP and Dell continues to intensify (read our analysis of the deals for free by clicking here). Though discussion of any details concerning the acquisition process was strictly off limits, Scott provided some interesting color on why he believes the battle for 3PAR is taking his company’s valuation to unprecedented levels.

Actually, our conversation was a continuation of a discussion that we began over dinner at 3PAR’s analyst event in California a few weeks ago. During that discussion I asked Scott why 3PAR hadn’t yet been acquired; his response pretty much described the events that are now playing out. Scott believed there was in effect a Mexican stand-off taking place; multiple vendors would potentially be very interested in making a bid for 3PAR, but a fear of being outbid – and losing out – was holding them back. Thus, for the time being it was generally in all potential suitors’ best interests for 3PAR to remain independent.

Why Dell decided to break rank and shoot first is not entirely certain at this point — though HP losing its CEO may have been a trigger — and was certainly not on the menu for discussion with Scott. But the CEO was more forthcoming on the reasons for this fear of being outbid, which are rooted in 3PAR’s scarcity; ie the belief that there is no viable alternative acquisition target to 3PAR. The bidding war that has played out since Dell made its first offer would appear to support this. Why? Scarcity seems like a crazy assumption to make in an industry that is constantly spitting out new startups.

Scott’s reasoning for this scarcity has both demand-side and a supply-side dimensions, both of which have taken a couple of turns of the IT cycle to come to fruition. On the supply side; cast your mind back a decade, and the IT world was alive with the prospect that ‘xSPs’ (especially storage service providers and application service providers) would play a transformative role in delivering IT as a service; Cloud 1.0, if you like. What these xSPs required was a way of building these services on a scalable, secure and shared technology infrastructure. Unfortunately for SSPs such as Storage Networks, the infrastructure components to build such a stack were not available, and the entire model collapsed under the weight of having to build dedicated systems for each customer.

But the promise of the xSP model was also the catalyst for innovation at all levels of the IT stack. There was nothing inherently wrong with the model of IT-as-a-service – it was, and remains, highly attractive. What was needed was a new underlying architecture that could provide the required scale and flexibility as cost effectively as possible, such as blade servers, virtualization software and ‘utility’ storage.

Thus, as interest in the xSP model began to build, VC money started to flow into storage startups developing ‘carrier grade’ platforms; in particular Cereva Networks, Yotta Yotta, Zambeel and 3PAR. Only one of those companies managed to make a go of it; the rest succumbed to the same burst bubble that did for the xSPs. Cereva (which had raised almost $140m in VC funding) collapsed in 2002, Zambeel (which raised around $66m) closed its doors in 2003, while the assets of YottaYotta  (which took in around $100m) were eventually acquired by EMC.

As the only remaining player in this new generation of high-end storage platforms, Scott says 3PAR was in a unique position. Perhaps even more crucially, these failures meant VCs were now loath to invest in high-end storage startups; even if the next “3PAR killer” came along, it would have struggled for funding. Instead, VCs turned their attention to startups targeting the mid-range storage market – LeftHand Networks, EqualLogic, Compellent, Pillar — which was growing much more quickly than the now-slowing high-end space.

Scott admits 3PAR came under pressure to target the mid-range space more aggressively (and it did release smaller versions of its InServ arrays), but the company’s core efforts remained on the high-end, with a continuing focus on direct-, rather than channel-based, sales. Scott and his team remained as convinced as ever that ‘utility’ computing was real, and would eventually pay dividends via 3PAR’s scalable storage platform.

In particular it found traction with the next generation of service providers –such as managed hosting providers and telcos – that, subscribers to the cloud model attest, will collectively host the vast majority of the enterprise IT workloads of the future. Indeed – and this is where the demand-side argument comes in – the post-recession reality for organizations of all types and sizes – from financial services giants to local government offices – is that they are looking for more cost effective methods of running their IT processes.

These service providers differentiate themselves on quality of service and cost, and the only way of achieving this – according to Scott – is through best of breed IT infrastructure. Scott and co have made much of the fact that seven of the ten largest service providers by revenue are 3PAR customers, and we’re sure this point is not lost on HP, Dell or any other would-be acquirer.

Of course, with hindsight it’s easy to make the facts fit a story, but we’d note that 3PAR‘s own strategy and messaging has scarcely changed since day one. 3PAR has always targeted ‘utility’ computing, and has stuck with the term as the rest of the industry dispensed with what to them was just the latest buzzword (for proof, see the first research report (451 clients only) we wrote on 3PAR, back in 2002). Indeed, for 3PAR and Scott, delivering IT as a utility is an integral part of its proposition; it gets to the core of why the company believes it is different, and why (at least) two giants of the industry are prepared to pay well-over-the odds to own.