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Tadpole Technology Acquires Cycle Computer - View from the Hill

On November 22, 2000 a press release to this effect appeared on Tadpole's site.

I discuss what this could mean for the SPARC market?

November 2000:- This is an occasional column by Zsolt Kerekes publisher of the SPARC Product Directory.
See also:- Cycle Computer, Tadpole-RDI, Acquired storage companies, SPARC Portables, SPARC CPU upgrades, Articles, News, Sun SPARC resellers - USA,

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Within the SPARC systems market the acquisition of one company by another have been rare. Before this announcement, the most recent one I can remember was Sun's May, 2000 announcement about the acquisition of Dolphin Interconnect Solutions assets and technology.. Earlier, in 1996, Sun acquired IMP Technology to get its fault tolerant server technology. However, Tadpole is no stranger to mergers and acquisitions having acquired its arch rival portable SPARC manufacturer RDI Computer in October 1998.

So what will be the result of the new merger which will combine the best known brand of SPARC portable with the 2nd best known brand of SPARC motherboards? (Sun being the #1 of course.)

You're going to have a company which, at the low end has the technology to make portables (and other as yet unmarketed appliances which need the SPARC/Solaris pltaform to work in a small space). At the high end, one of the best kept secrets about Cycle's products was that they could be deployed instead of Sun motherboards as the engines in the fast growing rackmount SPARC market.

In April 2000 - I noted that rackmount SPARC was the #2 most popular product category on this site, and speculated that "At some stage in the future I expect that rackmount will get to the #1 spot."

If you look at this market from the perspective of a potential manufacturer, it has been quite difficult, because most of the original manufacturers of SPARC motherboards such as Sun, Tatung, Force Computers and Themis Computer, also manufacture their own brands of rackmount system.

Buying technology at this level from a competitor always presents problems. The reason that most of the manufacturers listed in our rackmount SPARC systems directory actually use Sun's motherboards instead of reselling Sun's own rackmount systems is because Sun is incapable of providing the degree of customisation which these kinds of products really require, and in the distant past Sun actually withdrew from a significant part the embedded systems market when it withdrew its VMEbus products and licensed the SPARC-engine 1 to Force Computers in the 1980's. Although Sun would like to get back into this market, many of its biggest potential customers (the telcos) have long memories and feel more comfortable with buying Sun technology which is integrated at chip or card level by suppliers who are more committed to serving their specific needs.

In fact, during most of this year, Cycle Computer was the only source of commercially viable SPARC motherboards which didn't actively market rackmount systems. However, it appears, from the outside at least, that Cycle spent far too much time cosying up to Sun so that it could get support for its workstation upgrade products which is a plateauing or declining market and too little (or virtually no) resources promoting its products into the fast growing rackmount market.

By surviving for as long as it has done, as an independent manufacturer of SPARC portables, and then successfully fighting off Sun's attempt to get into portables, when Sun introduced its luggable Voyager (Q2 1994), Tadpole has shown that it can deploy not just technology, but also marketing skills which enabled it to thrive in a SPARC market niche which it successfully defended against strong competition.

The first bullet point in Tadpole's press release says "The strategic acquisition of Cycle for a total consideration of $8 million (£5.6 million) in Tadpole shares to further accelerate Tadpole's growth in the design, development and sale of specialist high-density motherboards and computer systems for the customers of Sun Microsystems, Inc."

My guess is that Tadpole-RDI could become a significant alternative source of technology for the fast growing rackmount SPARC systems market. If we look at other applications which could benefit from high density server technology then other applications such as Network Attached Storage and other storage products also spring to mind. Before the Cycle acquisition, Tadpole didn't have a broad enough product range to satisfy most integrators, but now, if you look only at SPARC cards, it has a range which is almost as wide as Sun's, but with more products at the low end. So, just when everyone thought this market was in sleep mode, product announcements could start accelerating all over again.

And for those many skeptics, who contact me from time to time, who believe that the whole SPARC market operates just like the old mainframe market did in the heydays of IBM, and who may be inclined to think that Sun could exert a subtle strangehold on its chip supply, if Tadpole ever got too successful and ever threatened Sun's SPARC-engine business, I'll just say one word:- "Fujitsu".

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