There is a saying that goes, "you don't have to be faster than the tiger, you just have to be faster than your slowest friend." That may be a constructive way of thinking about Fusion-IO (NYSE:FIO) today. There's no question that this is a high-growth tech stock with a huge multiple and huge expectations, but that has never stopped those tech stocks that can deliver the goods. (For more, see Earning Forecasts: A Primer.)
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Big Data 2.0
In some respects, what Fusion-IO seeks to do is relatively simple. In the same way that solid-state drives (SSD) have offered consumers considerably better performance than hard disk drives, Fusion-IO is trying to bring the advantages of flash/SSD memory to the enterprise data market.
Fusion-IO sells a two-part solution. The hardware consists of products like to ioDrive, a collection of flash cards (ioMemory) containing an array of NAND flash chips and an FPGA. These attach literally to the process server (through PCI Express) and can dramatically increase the throughput rates as a result.
There is also a software component, with the Virtual Storage Layer (VSL) software arguably the most important part. This is host driver software that manages the interface between the ioDrive and the operating system. Fusion-IO also has the directCache product that allows Fusion-IO's products to work in virtualized systems like those created by VMware (NYSE:VMW).
So why is Fusion-IO doing this? Don't EMC (NYSE:EMC), NetAppliance (Nasdaq:NTAP) and International Business Machine (NYSE:IBM) already handle the storage needs for Big Data? Yes and no. There are certainly ample virtues to the approach used by EMC (and the others), particularly when it concerns large amounts of data.
The problem, though, is that these aren't always especially fast systems - there's something of a "request and go fetch" aspect to it. What Fusion-IO offers is a solution that is much faster (and ultimately cheaper) when speed is of the essence. It's not yet economical to create an entirely flash-based storage network, but it can make sense for smaller pieces of time-sensitive data.
It's not fair to say that Fusion-IO is a solution in search of a market, but it is fair to say that this is a small early-stage opportunity. Some analysts believe that this will be a $5 billion addressable market in 2015 - by way of comparison, EMC has logged over $19 billion in revenue in its past twelve months. That said, don't confuse "small today" with "small forever." Just as hard drives replaced tape-based drives years ago, SSD is going to continue to grow as the costs come down.
Competitors and Buyers
Fusion-IO has a head-start on the competition, but that won't last very long. First, there is a risk that the VSL software becomes a commoditized product over the next couple of years. More to the point, companies like EMC, NetApp, STEC (Nasdaq:STEC) and LSI (NYSE:LSI) have this market opportunity in their sights. EMC's Project Lightning should ship in 2012 and while not so much is known about the hardware component, EMC does already have very good storage management software.
Looking more broadly, a host of other companies could potentially get into this market. Chip companies like Marvel Technology (Nasdaq:MRVL), SanDisk (Nasdaq:SNDK), Intel (Nasdaq:INTC) and Samsung arguably have the hardware wherewithal, but need to find a way to implement the software side - something that could get easier if VSL does become a commodity.
There's also a good chance that Fusion-IO goes into the buyout rumor mill. OEM partners IBM and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) could certainly use this company to enliven the growth prospects of their storage businesses, while EMC has never been shy about pulling out its wallet to cover gaps in its own technology.
The Bottom Line
There's no point in talking about valuation on a stock like Fusion-IO; sell side analysts will assign grotesque multiples to sales or earnings three years hence, but the reality is that it's nearly impossible to model growth stories like this correctly. Trading at about nine times trailing sales, Fusion-IO is already in the neighborhood of pure software plays like VMware and ahead of other growth hardware names like F5 Network (Nasdaq:FFIV) or Mellanox (Nasdaq:MLNX).
None of this means that the stock can't work - the reality of growth tech investing is that multiples seldom stand in the way of further appreciation if the growth is there. It's a consummate case of "buy high and hope to sell higher." So long as investors understand the risks that go with that sort of investing, and the inevitability of some "hiccups" along the way that lead to occasional sharp pullbacks, it isn't such a bad aggressive play. (For additional reading, check out 5 Must-Have Metrics For Value Investors.)
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At the time of writing, Stephen D. Simpson did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.