Could a management titan topple in 2009?

Economic factors, ambitious competitors and evolving IT management needs could unseat one of the big four

Get ready for a shakeup, analysts say, when one of the big four management-software makers succumbs to acquisition by a high-tech heavyweight, such as Microsoft, Oracle or SAP.

The management market could be in for a shakeup in 2009, analysts say, when one of the big four market-leading management-software makers succumbs to acquisition by a high-tech heavyweight looking to buy its way in.

As enterprise IT executives turn to management and automation products to improve services on their tight 2009 budgets, leading network vendors also will be looking to bring those technologies into their portfolios fast -- potentially by acquiring one of the established market leaders. It's never been lonely at the top for BMC Software, CA, HP and IBM, but industry watchers argue competition is heating up like never before.

"The future of IT is going to rely on a broad-based approach to management and automation, and software vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP realize they need to be a part of this overall vision of IT and not supply piece parts," says Glenn O'Donnell, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "The change in the economy has not only made the technology they have more attractive, but it has also taken the companies' valuations down so they could be easier to absorb."

The reigning quartet has spent more than a decade jockeying back and forth among the top market spots, with HP excelling in network management more so than application management, and BMC creating new approaches to existing pain points with its business service management (BSM) strategy. CA survived accounting scandals and came out stronger under a new management team, and IBM continues to sell its management technology successfully as part of vertical industry solutions. With enterprise IT managers in 2009 looking to cut costs and reduce manual labor, however, incumbent management vendors are becoming more attractive to other industry heavyweights, such as ASG Software, EMC, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and Symantec.

"Virtualization has driven up interest in systems management and data center automation," says Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA). "As companies look to cut costs in the first half of 2009, as ugly as it is, headcount in IT will be among those cuts, and automation for better or for worse is a tool that will help companies continue to deliver services to the business without adding headcount."

Clearly HP and IBM aren't easy targets for an acquisition. HP reported fiscal 2008 net revenue of $118.4 billion, a 13% gain from fiscal 2007. Specifically, HP Software increased total revenue by 13% to $855 million. For the first nine months of 2008, IBM reported revenue of $76.6 billion. In its software division -- which includes its Tivoli management-software group -- IBM reported $15.7 billion in revenue for the nine months that ended Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, positive earnings and growth at both BMC and CA show the two smaller players are continuing to increase business as well. BMC reported in March it had reached an all-time high with $1.73 billion in fiscal 2008 revenue. So far for the first half of its fiscal 2009, the company has reported more than $900 million in revenue. Similarly, CA reported fiscal 2008 revenue at $4.3 billion, and for the first half of fiscal 2009, revenue was $2.2 billion, up 5% from the previous year. The reports show the respective strength of each company, but Forrester's O'Donnell says the positive earnings could drive up the appeal of acquiring BMC or CA.

"BMC and CA still seem to be acquisition targets. They both have momentum right now, and they are performing quite well," O'Donnell says. "Neither wants to be acquired, but they continue to become more attractive morsels to the likes of Microsoft, which has no choice with its virtualization push to take on a bigger management role."

Still others argue it won't be an easy task, even for a cash-rich company like Microsoft.

"Microsoft certainly has the motivation and the cash to make a move, but it remains to be seen if it will take such a risk with the state of the economy in 2009," says Jasmine Noel, founder and principal analyst at Ptak, Noel & Associates. "Many companies including EMC and Symantec have been knocking on that door for many, many years, and it's not a club you can easily buy your way into. It is an extremely tough market to crack."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.