Who Wants to Buy Cognos?

Potential suitors are lining up to court the belle of the business intelligence ball, though Cognos says it loves its independence. So who will make the BI powerhouse an offer it can't refuse: HP, IBM, Microsoft, SAP or Oracle?

There's no denying that 2007 has been a groundbreaking year for enterprise application vendors that appear to have vaults of cash to spend on strategic acquisitions—and all signs point to more M&A fever in the near future.

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While SAP and Oracle have spent billions to gobble up both small startups and sizeable competitors, one very attractive enterprise software vendor has remained undeniably available throughout all of this corporate wooing: Cognos. The company's business intelligence and performance management suite of applications brought in nearly a billion dollars in revenue for fiscal year 2007 and has a market cap of $4 billion. Cognos has more than 23,000 customers in 135 countries, and the company claims that its top 100 enterprise customers consistently outperform market indexes. (There's no mention of how the rest of its 22,900 customers are performing.)

Speculation around Cognos's availability cranked up once SAP announced its purchase of Business Objects in early October. That's because after SAP swallowed Business Objects, Cognos became the largest publicly traded BI player, and "therefore next in line to be acquired by any vendor keen to bolster its competitive standing in BI or compete more effectively in this arena with SAP," according to Krishna Roy, an enterprise software analyst at The 451 Group. In other words, Cognos became the next best option for any vendor looking to round out its portfolio with a timely business intelligence buy.

Business intelligence is red hot these days. Roy notes in a report on Cognos that, while some software markets are experiencing a slowdown in growth, BI shows no sign of doing so. "Most market estimates suggest that the BI market grew between 11 percent and 15 percent in 2006, with the expectation that growth rates will land in a similar bracket this year," Roy writes. As such, Cognos would be a nice pickup for a vendor looking to get in on the action. For any suitor, it "would be a way to ride the BI growth train and witness increases to the would-be acquirer's top and bottom line," she notes.

So just who are the likely candidates to make a run at Cognos? Roy's short list includes the usual suspects: HP, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. For HP, Cognos would fill a number of product holes "in reporting, analytics, dashboards and scorecards, and performance management applications, and therefore enable it to become a bona fide BI vendor capable of taking on the likes of SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and others in this sector," she writes, adding that HP and Cognos already have a fairly close relationship. In addition, HP would get some cross-sell opportunities for its hardware and infrastructure software.

Roy points out that IBM and Cognos have a similarly close relationship. While there's been speculation over the years that IBM would acquire Cognos, "[A] union between the two is more likely these days given that IBM is one of the few remaining incumbents in BI and BI-related sectors that hasn't yet made a large acquisition to bolster its product portfolio," she writes. Her one sticking point: IBM would have to do a U-turn in its application strategy. "Big Blue has said that it wouldn't sell applications but would provide them via partners," she writes.

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Of course, no one should ever count out Microsoft. Roy notes that Microsoft's approach to business intelligence and performance management is SQL Server- and Office-oriented, focusing on desktop applications and tools that are designed to run primarily in its own environment. "But if it were to acquire Cognos, it would gain service-oriented architecture and Web-based BI tools and applications designed to run in Microsoft and non-Microsoft worlds," she writes. "Cognos would also enable Microsoft to expand out of its stronghold in the midmarket to begin targeting enterprise accounts in earnest. Clearly, this would be a big departure in strategy for the Redmond giant—but not an unfeasible one if it is serious about taking on Oracle, IBM and others in BI."

The one surprise on Roy's list is Oracle. That's because last spring, Oracle purchased BI vendor Hyperion. While she acknowledges the obvious product overlap in application sets, "Product overlap has never stopped Oracle from making acquisitions," she points out. "Cognos would bring Oracle a stronger front-end BI tools story and the opportunity to keep these tools operating in non-Oracle environments....With Cognos under its wing, Oracle would also have a stronger BI arsenal to take on archrival SAP and its acquired Business Objects's BI wares."

Roy includes Sun Microsystems and EMC on her list, noting their deep pockets and desire to dive into high-growth markets, but concludes that HP, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are the more likely bets.

For all the speculation, Cognos has proclaimed that it wants to keep its independence. While company executives didn't want to talk about their future as a potential acquisition target or who might be the purchaser, they did release a "Yay Us!" statement. "Cognos now stands as the independent performance management provider in the market and is committed to giving customers equal access to their entire infrastructure, applications and data sources," the statement says. "This is a great position for us to be in, and it validates the vision we laid out more than six years ago: to be the leading independent provider of performance management solutions for our customers."

Dan Vesset, a program VP in business analytics at IDC, says that "Even though there's significant consolidation at the top end of [the enterprise applications] market [it] doesn't mean there's not room for an independent vendor." He points to IBM's acquisition of Ascential Software in 2005 in the database space, which prompted everyone to speculate that Informatica would be next. Today, Informatica is still independent. "There is value in being independent in BI," Vesset says.

In fact, with the recent flurry of acquisitions of its competitors, this is a good time for Cognos to focus on growing its customer base, according to Vesset. "Two of their major competitors are distracted right now in being integrated," he says. "In the short term, this could be a great time for Cognos to stay independent, and [to] take some market share away and grow faster than some of the other big guys who have made the acquisitions."

Cognos's public declaration of independence stands in stark contrast to middleware vendor BEA Systems' "For Sale" status, though negotiations with Oracle are currently at a stalemate over just how much BEA is actually worth.

However BEA's situation plays out, Cognos steadfastly maintains that it "will not waver in that vision" of its independence. But, as Vesset says of the unpredictable M&As in the enterprise software space, "Clearly, anything is possible."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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