Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Equinix, F5, and Akamai - Growing More by Doing Less

by David Gross

I wrote last week that data center revenue continues to grow in spite of the economy. In particular, three companies from different segments of the data center market, Equinix (EQIX), F5 (FFIV), and Akamai (AKAM), have increased their top line over the last 12 months. However, in years past, I remember hearing how they were going to go away.

Equinix has grown 24% year-over-year as its data centers continue to fill up, and its lease rates continue to rise. But I remember in 2000 hearing how Equinix was not going to stick around a long time, because hosting leaders like Exodus, in addition to the telcos, would put it out of business, and that its service line was too thin. Ten years later, Exodus and many of the ISPs who were supposed to put Equinix out of business are now out of business themselves.

The benefits of a tight product focus have extended to the network equipment market, where Cisco (CSCO) did not have a strong presence in layer 4-7 switching market until it bought Arrowpoint at the top of the market in 2000. And I remember in 2000, the load balancer everyone raved about was not Arrowpoint's, or even F5's BIG-IP , but Foundry's ServerIron. The challenge for the ServerIron was not performance, customer acceptance, or market share, but its parent company's focus on the much larger Ethernet switch market. Today, F5 has twice the market cap of the merged Brocade (BRCD) and Foundry company.

As with F5, economic conditions did not prevent Akamai from reporting year-over-year growth of 12% last quarter. But the last recession did not go too well for the content distribution network provider. It lost its founder in the 9/11 attacks. In 2002, its revenue declined, and it posted an operating margin of minus 141%, which led Wall Street to classify it as another low margin telecom transport provider. The consensus thinking was the CDN market was too small to be important, and if it ever got big, a large carrier would come in and take it over. Yet as it recovered in the mid-2000s, Akamai wisely avoided any temptation to over-diversify. Eight years since bottoming out, the company has grown its top line sixfold, and is on the verge of crossing $1 billion in sales. However, much of its financial strength is not reflected in its income statement, but its balance sheet, where unlike virtually every telco, it has very little long-term debt.

Akamai's primary telco competitor is Level 3 (LVLT), which got into the CDN market by buying Savvis' (SVVS) old business, which got into the CDN market itself by acquiring the American assets of my former employer, Cable & Wireless, which got into CDNs by acquiring Digital Island. Level 3 has had some big wins recently, including mlb.com, but in addition to having to support a wide range of telecom services, it is weighed down by a significant debt load.

It is very easy to cave in to Wall Street pressure to boost top line numbers by making questionable R&D choices, or by entering a market where there is little chance of ever being the number one or two supplier. This pressure is often greatest when multiples are high, and executives start scrambling to justify a growing market cap. But by refusing to go on wild revenue chases when times were good, these three companies have increased sales when times have been bad.

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