What a difference a year makes.
Twelve months ago, shares of F5 Networks (Nasdaq: FFIV ) dropped like a rock on a disappointing first-quarter report. Fast-forward 52 weeks and you find the stock surging as much as 12.8%. This time, there's not just one strong report behind the jump -- but a solid series of outperformances.
F5's non-GAAP earnings landed at $1.03 per share, 22% above the year-ago period and 2% ahead of analyst targets. That's nothing new; the string of earnings beats actually goes back to and even beyond that dreary drop four quarters ago. In fact, you have to go back to fall 2008 to find the last time F5 merely met Street estimates rather than exceeding them.
Instead, the big story is the revenue surprise. Seasonal slowdowns didn't play out the typical way, mainly thanks to strong demand for a couple of recently introduced application-delivery products. The selling spiel for the VIPRION product range is that the system can grow as your business grows by plugging more networking modules and upgraded software into the central chassis. This flexible approach is clearly resonating with F5 customers.
The company's efficient networking focus isn't altogether unique. Citrix Systems (Nasdaq: CTXS ) sells a software-based app delivery alternative to F5's mainly hardware-based solution, albeit without the performance advantages of specialized hardware. Brocade Communications Systems (Nasdaq: BRCD ) plays the integrated hardware-plus-software game, but it's centered on data storage rather than centralized application delivery. The main head-to-head competitor across all of F5's markets is, of course, networking titan Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO ) , but F5 is outgrowing Cisco by orders of magnitude and clearly stealing market share from its bigger rival.
In short, F5 remains a top-notch networking play on cloud computing, and you just can't get much hotter than that nowadays. This stock enjoyed a gangbusters 2010, but 2011 was pretty flat. Will 2012 be a return to grand old form? The company and stock are off to a fine start, but you need to add F5 to your Foolish watchlist to track the situation as the year goes on. And don't forget to brush up on the fantastic cloud computing opportunity while you wait for more news.