Truth be told, I haven't been Dell's (Nasdaq: DELL ) biggest fan in recent years, as the company slowly devolved from being the "gold standard" of the PC industry to a stumbling, misfiring heavyweight that couldn't figure out how to deal with the blows sent its way by a variety of competitors. But just as another storied computer manufacturer managed to become a favorite of investors by finding new opportunities, Dell's non-PC operations -- combined with a depressed valuation -- should spell brighter days for its stock after years of underperforming the Nasdaq.
PCs falter ...
Considering just how far its PC business has fallen from grace, it's not surprising that Dell's shares have found their way into Wall Street's bargain bin. Dell, once the world's largest PC manufacturer, now has a market share of 13% (according to IDC) -- only good for second place. Not only is that well behind the 18.1% share claimed by market leader Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , it's also barely ahead of the 12.6% claimed by the rapidly growing Acer.
And while in recent quarters Dell has managed to slow down the hemorrhaging of its PC market share, going forward, I doubt that it can do much more than hold water. Having outsourced a large chunk of its PC assembly work to third parties, Dell can't rely on its manufacturing prowess to give it a leg up anymore. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard is a far more formidable rival today than it was when Dell was making its way to the top; Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) position in the high-end consumer segment is as strong as ever; and Asian manufacturers such as Acer, Lenovo, and Asus can more than match Dell when it comes to cost-efficiency.
... but servers and storage deliver
Still, in the process of punishing Dell for its PC-related stumbles, Wall Street seems to be overlooking the gradual emergence of Dell's enterprise solutions business into a corporate IT heavyweight. Enterprise solutions, which covers servers, storage, networking equipment, and services, now accounts for around 25% of the company's revenues, and -- more importantly – more than half of its gross profits. It's a safe bet that both of those numbers will steadily move higher going forward.
Market-share data for Dell's server and storage operations offer proof of the company's growing popularity in data centers. IDC estimated that in the first quarter of 2010, Dell's server revenues grew by 51.9% compared with the year-ago quarter, lifting its market share from 11.2% to 16.3%. The server business has gotten a boost both from the industry's ongoing transition toward the x86 servers (i.e., servers typically running on Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) Xeon or AMD (NYSE: AMD ) Opteron processors) that Dell specializes in, and from Dell's success in selling the more powerful and/or customized systems usually associated with rivals such as HP and IBM.
Dell's storage business, which sells both the company's home-grown gear and products offered through a partnership with EMC (NYSE: EMC ) , didn't grow at the manic pace that the server business did, but it's clearly gaining ground as well. According to IDC, Dell's storage system market share grew 29% in Q1 2010 year over year, which led its market share to rise from 11.7% to 12.7%.
Partnerships and acquisitions galore
But to get a good feel for just how far the enterprise solutions business has come, and where it stands to go in the future, you also need to take into account the huge string of partnerships and acquisitions that Dell has announced in recent years. These deals are transforming Dell into far more of a soup-to-nuts IT solutions provider, as compared with a mere seller of boxes.
In addition to its long-standing alliance with EMC, Dell is also now teaming up with the likes of Juniper Networks (data networking and security hardware), Brocade Communications Systems (Nasdaq: BRCD ) (storage networking gear), VMware (server virtualization software), and Citrix Systems (desktop virtualization software) to better compete for the IT budget dollars of enterprises and institutions. In doing so, Dell is taking what it calls a more "open" approach to selling IT solutions than some of its biggest competitors. While competitors such as HP, Oracle, and Cisco seem to be doing everything they can to step onto each other's turf, Dell is partnering with a slew of independent hardware and software companies with the goal of appealing to companies nervous about getting "locked in" to a single vendor's products.
Dell's acquisition trail, meanwhile, has gone a long way toward extending its reach and competitiveness in the markets that it's targeting. Purchases such as EqualLogic (low-cost storage gear), KACE Networks (systems management appliances), Scalent Systems (virtualization management software), and Silverback Technologies (remote systems monitoring) all tie in well with the company's core server and storage offerings.
But Dell's biggest acquisition, without a doubt, is its recent buyout of IT services company Perot Systems. Buying Ross Perot's old company not only puts Dell on better footing to compete with IBM and HP in deals that require a combination of hardware and services, it also positions the company well in some fast-growing vertical markets, such as health care.
Growth at a discount valuation
With all that said, what makes Dell's shares look like a good deal for investors isn't the company's growth potential by itself -- I suspect that the likes of Apple and Google will deliver stronger earnings growth in the coming years -- but the fact that Dell isn't remotely valued like a growth stock. With an enterprise value of less than eight times its estimated earnings for its current fiscal year (which will end in January 2011), the company sports a valuation that's dirt cheap compared with a lot of its tech sector peers.
And as the market figures out that Dell no longer needs much help from its PC division to be a growth story, that valuation should move higher along with the company's earnings. This might not spell a repeat of Dell's glory days in the '90s, but it should translate into a nice return for tech investors willing to go bargain-hunting.