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Servers take dive in IBM's third quarter

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What was clear from IBM's numbers is that there was no way to cover up the fact that its System x X64-based rack, tower, and blade servers business took it on the chin, with sales down 18 per cent in the quarter. IBM's BladeSystem blade server sales fell by 8 per cent as well.

Loughridge did not offer much of an explanation, except to say that there was a slowdown in the X64 server market in the quarter and that IBM had sales execution issues. He also said that the company was looking to turn the business around in the next two quarters. If this sounds a lot like the IBM PC business to you, which is now owned by Lenovo, you are not alone.

On the storage front, IBM saw disk and tape storage decline in aggregate by 3 per cent, but Loughridge said the first half of 2008 was good for storage sales. Disk array sales fell by 1 per cent overall, but high-end DS8000 arrays were a bright point, up 2 per cent and driven in part by mainframe sales. Tape drive, array, and library sales in aggregate were off 11 per cent as companies pulled back on spending. The Microelectronics division within STG, which makes chips for IBM and its partners, had a 27 per cent decline in the quarter, dragging down the group.

On the software side of the IBM house, where a significant part of quarterly revenues come from monthly licensing fees for mainframe platforms, Software Group's sales rose by 12 per cent to $5.2bn. Sales in the quarter were bolstered by the acquisitions of Cognos and Telelogic.

WebSphere middleware tools were fairly weak at 4 per cent growth, but database and related products were up 26 per cent thanks to Cognos. Tivoli systems management tools had a 2 per cent boost in sales in Q3, while Lotus groupware and related application software saw 10 per cent growth. Rational development tool sales rose by 23 per cent, boosted mainly by Telelogic.

It's the Services, Stupid

What IBM wants to talk about - especially in a rough economy - is services. When the economy gets bad, as it has from time to time, companies call up Big Blue and other service providers to cut costs and to re-engineer their businesses, often asking companies like IBM to host and code their applications. Such services have been more than half of IBM's sales for a long time now, and this quarter it was more so. IBM's Global Technology Services (that's the hosting, app development, and maintenance part) accounted for $9.9bn in sales, up 8 per cent, while Global Business Services (that's the business re-engineering part) posted $4.9bn in sales, up 7 per cent.

Short-term signings in both areas jumped and long-term contracts fell, just as you would expect for a customer set looking for a quick return. IBM has $114bn in future services revenues backlogged, by the way. Pretax income for the services business in aggregate at IBM was 23 per cent in the quarter - the highest IBM has seen in six years - and Loughridge said that IBM was definitely walking away from deals that didn't make sense in terms of profit and that the company was not looking to boost revenue figures for the sake of showing larger numbers.

Given the edginess of Wall Street these days, Loughridge wanted to make sure everyone understood that IBM was liquid. The company ended the quarter with $9.8bn in cash (although down from $16.1bn a year ago thanks to acquisitions and an accelerated share repurchase program), just floated $4bn in term financing last week, and has a $10bn credit facility if things get tight. IBM has debts of $9.9bn, if you don't include all the gear it finances for customers and resellers, which stands at $24.5bn. IBM's Global Financing currently has assets of $32.8bn, larger than the debts on its books, and it brought in $600m in revenues during Q3.

Looking ahead to the fourth quarter, Loughridge reaffirmed what IBM said in a statement two weeks ago: That it can make its numbers and bring in earnings of at least $8.75 per share. IBM did not provide revenue projections, but it seems likely that sales in Q4 will be flat to down.

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