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Everyone Wants To Be The IBM Of Old

As the 3PAR bidding war comes to a close, it seems time to examine the larger trend amongst IT manufacturers to go back to the future and recreate Thomas Watson's IBM or Ken Olsen's Digital Equipment Corporation, providing soup-to-nuts IT equipment and services.  While some other members of the IT chattering class have been concentrating on the integration of vertical stacks of storage, compute and networking, I see an even bigger trend including a broader set of hardware, software and services.

The vertical stack trend (if it really is a trend) started with the VCE alliance of VMware, Cisco and EMC announcing that customers could buy preconfigured vBlocks of UCS--don't call them blade servers, they're so much more than that--and EMC storage all tied together with Cisco networking gear and running vSphere.  I'm not a big believer in the three-sizes-fit-all model, especially since there's no bundle discount. The interest in vBlocks, like the movement to clouds, indicates that at least some IT managers are seeking the simplicity of having one throat to choke.

Back when the conservative IT manager's mantra was "No one ever got fired for buying IBM," the big vendors made not just data center computers from mainframes to System 34s but also their own printers, disk drives, terminals, and for IBM, even typewriters and punch-cards. It was common to walk into a self-described IBM shop and discover that the IBM salesman had an office right next to the CIO (although that acronym didn't exist at the time), and that gentlemen in the blue suit and wingtips controlled what the department bought. That situation extended well beyond the dreams of today's vendors, as IBM was also the world's largest software company, providing not just operating systems and data base software but also applications like MRP.

Today, the Cisco and EMC sales forces use some of the same techniques, like going over the purchasing manager's head to senior management to steal a deal they didn't win on its merits. The fuller range IT vendors long for the old days and are spending billions of dollars to assemble companies able to gain the account control the way IBM of old used to.

The clearest example of this ambition came from Oracle emperor Larry Ellison who came right out and stated that in buying Sun, he was trying to build a company to rival Watson's IBM, but the trend came clear to me as HP bought EDS and Dell bought Perot Systems (Ross Perot's second EDS) to boost their services ranks.