Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

How Is the Itanium Lawsuit Hurting HP? Let Us Count the Billions of Ways.

Every so often, I’ve been known to describe the Itanium lawsuit pitting Hewlett-Packard against Oracle as a very big fight over a very obscure chip. It’s not necessarily inaccurate, but it tends to make light of what’s turning out to be a very serious problem for HP.

How serious? Does $2.2 billion and 15 percent EBIT profits sound serious to you? It does to me, and also to Deutsche Bank analyst Chris Whitmore.

Having slogged through Oracle’s 72-page document dump with a better eye for detail than mine, Whitmore noticed a line in a January 2010 email from Dave Donatelli, now head of HP’s Enterprise Group (specifically Exhibit 17, for those who want to scroll through and find it) saying that HP’s Business Criticial Server business combined with its Technology Services business, which includes the support and services associated with the Integrity line of servers that uses the Intel-made Itanium chip, was at that time larger on a revenue basis than HP’s personal computer business.

The same document, he says, showed that at the time, HP’s “owned operating profit” for the combined hardware, software and services tied to the business of selling and supporting Itanium servers was about $2.2 billion. All in, HP derives — or at least at that time derived — about 15 percent of its profits on an EBIT basis from Itanium and related businesses.

No wonder, then, that HP considered Oracle’s March 2011 decision to stop creating software that runs on the Itanium chip so earth-shattering that it hauled the software giant into court last June. That case is expected to head to trial any day now.

The disclosure is the clearest sign yet of how much HP stands to lose if its Business Critical Server business can’t recover. It has always been known to be a highly profitable business; exactly how profitable was a closely guarded HP secret. But sales of Business Critical hardware have been on the decline. In 2009, sales of BCS hardware were $2.6 billion. In 2011, they had fallen by 19 percent to $2.1 billion. And in the quarter ended Jan. 31, sales were $405 million, down 27 percent from the same period in 2011.

The uncertainty about Itanium’s future is one of the many reasons that Whitmore has been particularly bearish on HP’s turnaround prospects: “Given the growing uncertainty around the long-term viability of Itanium, we expect customer defections to continue, if not accelerate in future periods,” he wrote in a research note to clients, issued yesterday.

However, much as HP lawyers would like to argue that Oracle’s motivation is to help bolster long-flagging sales of its new Sun Microsystems hardware unit, Whitmore argues that the main benefactor is IBM: “While Oracle is responsible for shining a bright light on Itanium’s precarious future, it is probably doing IBM the biggest favor. … We expect IBM to be the greatest beneficiary of Itanium defections and view Power [IBM’s server chip] as the market consolidator and eventual standard in the UNIX/RISC server market over the medium to longer term.”

And even if HP prevails in its suit, Whitmore isn’t seeing much benefit: “Regardless of the outcome of this particular suit, we expect HP-UX customers to continue fleeing what is increasingly looking like a dead platform — creating a major headwind for HP’s medium-term earnings.” Ouch.

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