Big Blue opens its arms, and its wallet, to Red Hat

Red Hat’s projected growth is enough to justify the hefty purchase price

On Oct. 28, IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) executives announced a proposed acquisition ― one that will be the industry’s third-largest acquisition should it gain approval. The deal, valued at $34 billion, would bring Red Hat into IBM’s hybrid cloud team, in its Technology Services and Cloud Platforms (TS&CP) group, where its IaaS (formerly SoftLayer), PaaS (formerly Bluemix) and hybrid management capabilities reside.

While the sheer magnitude of the deal may surprise some, the underlying reasons do not. IBM’s cloud strategy was sorely due for a boost, and Red Hat has been looking for a potential buyer for quite some time. Stefanie Chiras, a 17-year IBM vet, joined Red Hat as the VP and general manager of the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) business unit in July, likely to lead that group through the planned acquisition. The potential acquisition would also be aided by portfolio synergies around Linux on IBM hardware and Kubernetes. Additionally, IBM is pervasive in the large enterprise market while much of Red Hat’s revenue is channel-led.

What’s most important is that IBM listened to its stakeholders and the broader market, realizing that while its cloud business was growing consistently at around 20% to 25% year-to-year on a quarterly basis, that was not enough to move the needle materially to more effectively compete in cloud. The company’s recognition that it should not always promote all-IBM solutions is a noteworthy shift. Though IBM has had technology partnerships for some time, there was always the underlying perception that it would push its own solutions ahead of others, regardless of customer needs. Its recent and ongoing focus on hybrid IT enablement has changed this; and now, bringing on an open-source company could change the game for IBM.

Sticker shock fades once you factor in the rest of the numbers

Historically, initial public offerings (IPOs) and sales of more traditional technology and software companies have been valued at around 5x their annual revenue. However, in recent years, as more cloud-native companies with subscription-based business models go public or get acquired, this multiple has steadily shifted upward. As a rather extreme example, Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) bought AppDynamics for $3.7 billion, a valuation of nearly 16x AppDynamics’ annual revenue, even though in the week prior to the purchase AppDynamics had been valued at $1.9 billion on an annual revenue of approximately $220 million as the company readied for its IPO.
Much of the speculation around this monstrous deal relates to how IBM can and will fund such a hefty purchase. To put this massive $34 billion figure into perspective, Red Hat’s trailing 12-month revenue for the four quarters ended Aug. 31, 2018, was just shy of $3.1 billion, indicating the deal is valued at 11x Red Hat’s annual revenue. If Red Hat were to stay on its double-digit growth pattern and trajectory*, its revenue and operating income would be projected to more than double by the close of 2021, benefiting from access to IBM’s vast enterprise customer base.

These projections help IBM justify the large purchase price. Additionally, it is likely that the purchase price per share was set at least a few weeks ago, when there were more Red Hat shares available and at a higher price. On Oct. 1, Red Hat was trading at $133 a share, compared to the $117 per share price it was trading at on Oct. 26.

Synergies make the acquisition possible; success will come down to execution

Organizational structure

The proposed acquisition poses significant integration challenges for IBM if approved. Though the company has been successful in the past with integrating software acquisitions, it has yet to make a purchase this large, and this is the first major software acquisition since the company reorganized and brought software subgroups across its various business units a couple of years ago, eliminating a dedicated software business unit. Additionally, none of the formerly acquired companies have run as stand-alone units as Red Hat is expected to be.

Red Hat’s proposed position as a stand-alone unit in TS&CP could have varying results. IBM Services’ culture and cumbersome processes could stifle Red Hat’s software-led mindset, culture and innovation. Alternatively, Red Hat’s products could be pulled through in an unprecedented number of Services engagements the company has yet to see due to its much smaller size and scale. This second scenario, however, would only be possible if IBM Services and consultants can differentiate from Red Hat’s existing systems integration partners to maintain IBM’s status as the largest services provider around Red Hat and Linux. Whether or not those partnerships will stay at the strategic levels they are at today, or at all, remains unclear.

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst would report to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. While it is very likely he would stay with IBM for the year or so required and then retire, there is the possibility, and this is pure speculation, that IBM could be priming him to be a contender for the position of IBM CEO should Rometty look to retire soon.

Go to market

Undoubtedly, IBM has set its sights on reaching more midmarket customers as its large enterprise customer base is slower and more resistant to move to cloud. Red Hat’s prevalence in the midmarket will surely help open the doors to cross-sell IBM solutions and services to these companies, if pricing is adjusted for smaller companies. Additionally, IBM will gain access to a Red Hat developer community of more than 8 million. On the other side of this, Red Hat also can bring its solutions upmarket to IBM’s largest enterprise customers.

Much of IBM’s focus as of late has been on helping customers link on- and off-premises environments and sharing data across truly hybrid environments. Its large Services arm and broad portfolio set have helped offset some legacy software and services revenue erosion in past quarters. While Linux is already relatively pervasive across the market and OpenStack has yet to garner significant demand or traction, Kubernetes is the open-source solution of choice at the moment and will be in coming quarters. IBM continues to update its IBM Cloud Private portfolio centered on Kubernetes, which can also run on OpenShift, presenting an area of immediate portfolio synergy between the two companies. The incorporation of additional open-source technologies into the mix as well as Red Hat’s interoperability with third-party cloud and software solutions only help position IBM as an increasingly technology-agnostic hybrid enabler.

Peer implications

Despite the size of the acquisition and the attention it is garnering, IBM’s cloud competitors will not face substantially altered challenges should the deal go through. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) will continue to dominate the public cloud IaaS and PaaS market. The two have increasingly embraced open-source technology integrations in their proprietary ecosystems, only enabling them to get bigger as they can also work with RHEL customers.

We believe that if this acquisition were to materially impact any single company, it could be Google (Nasdaq: GOOGL) and/or Oracle (NYSE: ORCL). Google struggles to compete at scale with AWS and Microsoft and does not yet have the same permission to play in the large enterprise segment. With IBM, Red Hat would gain that permission almost immediately. Oracle’s Linux offerings are based on RHEL, which could complicate a competitive relationship between IBM and Oracle. While Oracle may have more pressing areas to focus on and invest in, such as Kubernetes in tandem with its peers, the company could, should it choose not to work closely with IBM when Red Hat is integrated, look to acquire another Red Hat-like company with expertise and capabilities in open source and Linux in particular, such as Canonical or SUSE, which was just sold by Micro Focus (NYSE: MFGP) to private equity firm EQT for $2.5 billion.

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