Why IBM Should Dump Its Low-End Server Business On Lenovo

IBM has no stomach for low-margin businesses, which is why Big Blue may be ready to dump its commodity server business — i.e., servers that run on Intel-compatible "x86" processors. If the reported talks with Lenovo lead to a sale, the move would mark IBM's final break with the low-end computer business.

A Win-Win

The deal would be a win-win for both companies. Lenovo, which bought IBM's PC business in 2005 for $1.75 billion, would immediately become the third largest maker  of x86 servers, behind market leader Hewlett-Packard and runner-up Dell. Thanks to its market clout in its homeland, the Chinese company has risen to become the second largest PC maker worldwide, according to the latest numbers from IDC. 

Adding x86 servers to its portfolio makes perfect sense for Lenovo, which has shown in PCs that it can do well in a low-margin, commodity market. For IBM, the opposite is true. The company's strength in hardware is in selling expensive — and profitable — mainframes.

IBM's mainframe business is the reason the company leads the global server market, at least in revenue terms. To give you some sense of how expensive these systems are, IBM's "System z" mainframe represented more than 12% of all server revenue worldwide in the fourth quarter. Because of a refresh in the product line, along with the introduction of new products, such as the zEnterprise, revenue from IBM's mainframe business rose almost 56% year over year in the quarter, according to IDC.

"Although revenue results for System z are traditionally heavier in the fourth quarter, this accelerated acquisition shows the breadth and depth of the IBM mainframe installed base," Jean Bozman, analyst for IDC said in a statement.

Lenovo would be a good buyer for IBM, because it doesn't compete in any of the markets IBM cares about, namely software and IT services. That wouldn't be the case if HP or Oracle were the buyer.

Disruption In Server Market

IBM may also have decided it wants no part of the disruption heading for the server market like a freight train. The increasing number of companies adopting cloud computing will mean fewer server sales, Larry Dignan points out at ZDNet. In addition, Internet companies with large server farms, such as Facebook and Google, buy customized white-box servers, which can't be good in the long term for traditional sellers, like HP, Dell and IBM.

While no one outside of IBM or Lenovo know how much the business would fetch, someone familiar with the talks told Bloomberg that the price would range from $2.5 billion to $4.5 billion, depending on the assets and liabilities included.

Lenovo Is Fired Up And Ready To Go

Not everyone agrees that IBM would be doing itself a favor by selling its x86 business. Gartner analyst Sergis Mushell says that without x86, IBM only non-mainframe servers would be its lineup of machines that run its Power processors — and that demand for those products is shrinking.

In other words, IBM would miss out on the opportunities to build systems based on x86 "while [its Power] architecture's ecosystem is shrinking," Mushell said. "Do you see how it would not make a lot of sense?"

Lenovo, meanwhile, is hungry to move beyond the PC market. The company announced last year a partnership with EMC in which Lenovo planned to introduce x86 servers that would include EMC storage systems. As part of the deal, Lenovo agreed to sell EMC networked storage products in China.

Given the jumpstart it would get from owning IBM's x86 business, Lenovo may be willing to make an offer that's hard for IBM to refuse.

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