A Microsoft investment in Dell would show how vulnerable both IT giants are

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

Most of the commentary about a reported investment by Microsoft into hardware partner Dell has centered on the fact that both companies have missed the consumer, mobile boom and need to make up ground.

But there is a very strong enterprise technology angle here as well. Microsoft needs to entrench Hyper-V and the latest Windows Server in data centers, something a Dell stake could accelerate. “Look, Microsoft needs a phone and a tablet buddy, but it also needs to make sure its core server and virtualization technologies get deployed,” said a former Dell executive who requested anonymity. (Spokesmen for Dell and Microsoft would not comment for this story.)

Preserving the enterprise stake

“Dell, by virtue of its Wyse and Quest acquisitions has a robust zero client business and if you see a big flip in IT with people leaving local hardware and software for stuff driven from the data center via terminal services or VDI, Microsoft needs help there,” said Dana Gardner, principal analyst with Interarbor Solutions and a GigaOM Pro analyst. “It has to make sure its software is running in the data center whether it’s in the cloud or corporate,” he added.

And, mobile is also driving corporate IT in a BYOD world where Apple’s iPhone and iPad schooled both Microsoft and Dell in part because it offered a tightly integrated hardware/software bundle. Microsoft and Dell together, in theory, could offer more of that integration together.  Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and counterpart Michael Dell have both been under fire for failing to keep their stock prices up and the perception that they missed the boat in mobility.

MSFT Chart

MSFT data by YCharts

Still, the idea that Microsoft — which made its fortune parlaying an army of hardware partners and being careful not to play favorites — may now take a stake in a PC maker is mind boggling. Microsoft dipped its toe in hardware by deciding to make Surface, but if it wants to get serious, it needs to do something bold, and buying into Dell would be bold,Gardner said.

It also might hedge bets if HP decides to spin off or sell its PC business.  HP is another huge Microsoft hardware partner in both consumer and corporate markets.

Dell management offers clues to buyout plan

Another former Dell exec, who said he has no knowledge of any deal, said a look at the company’s leadership offers a clue as to why it might opt to take itself private.

Two top-ranking Dell execs — John Swainson, president of software, came aboard after a stint as an advisor to Silverlake Partners — the private equity firm reportedly backing a buyout. And, Marius Haas, president of enterprise services, came from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. If a buyout happens, it’s likely that Michael Dell would step down and one of those two executives would become CEO, this source said. Swainson, who was also once CEO of CA, might be the logical choice.

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