TDS Telecom Mounts Cloud Services Push Behind Channel Acquisitions

As cloud computing and data center convergence catalyze a pickup in channel M&A, larger service providers continue to reach across the IT-telecom divide to expand their holdings.

Among the more active participants in that recent M&A wave is Telephone and Data Systems (TDS), the 40-year-old, Chicago-headquartered telecom giant whose subsidiary, TDS Telecommunications Corp., is the country's seventh-largest telecom service provider. The parent company TDS controls TDS brands as well as U.S. Cellular, the wireless subsidiary it majority-owns.

In June, TDS paid $45 million for Vital Support Systems, an Urbandale, Iowa-based solution provider and member of CRN's Tech Elite 250 list highlighting the country's top data center, networking and infrastructure solution providers. It was the latest move in a string of strategic buys that included OneNeck IT Services in June 2011, TEAM Technologies in Dec. 2010, and VISI Inc. in March 2010.

[Related: Solution Provider M&A: TDS Acquires Vital Support Systems ]

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Bill Megan, president of TDS Hosted & Managed Services and executive vice president, TDS Telecommunications, told CRN that Vital's roots as a traditional VAR as well as its significant hosted and managed services expertise made it the type of channel acquisition TDS was seeking.

"As part of our strategic evaluation, we'd been actively looking at opportunities for growth, and what we concluded is that IT infrastructure outsourcing -- what we call hosted and managed services -- was a very natural next step for us," Megan explained.

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Building A Bigger Presence

TDS Telecom's services strategy focuses on co-location, managed services, hosted services, cloud infrastructure and building a bigger presence in the traditional solution provider channel as a route to market, "as a way to integrate the other elements of the package and bring skills to us that were not present," Megan said.

Vital, with its range of elite vendor certifications including Cisco Gold, HP Elite, EMC Velocity Premier, VMware Premier and Microsoft Gold, fit the bill. According to the companies, Vital posted $76 million in revenue in 2011.

"We began courting them a year ago," Megan said. "It's not something we decide in one day and start throwing out preemptive offers. We want to build a much more personal kind of relationship. Vital was a highly regarded company with a comprehensive suite of services, and a great reputation among vendors. It's not just about land grab. We want growth, we want profitable growth and we want these guys to be aligned. Vital did not need to sell."

Next up for TDS is a full-bore expansion into cloud services, scheduled for initial rollout in late August, according to the company. Megan said it was important for TDS to come to market with not only a branded offering but a fully owned cloud option that TDS could make as flexible and customizable as possible.

"We're not reselling someone else's cloud. We come to the market with this panoply of services so we can articulate the optimal solution for the user," he said. "There should be no perception of bias. We want to be able to tell them, if the best solution for you is on-premise equipment and design, we can do that. If you want to transition some of your components to cloud, we can do that, and it is our cloud."

The infrastructure TDS will use for its cloud is a three-pod data center infrastructure across three sites in the Midwest. TDS uses Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) for server and networking resources, EMC Symmetrix VMAX storage and VMWare software.

The configurations are not, however, Vblocks, the tightly integrated stacks of Cisco, EMC and VMware resources sold through those vendors' joint venture, VCE. Megan said TDS sought more flexibility than it found in the Vblock model.

"We explored Vblock and decided that we could replicate all of the great elements of a Vblock ourselves but not have any of the restrictions," he said. "We wanted to be able to customize solutions, and leverage other current hardware or infrastructure if we need to."

TDS expects to continue to acquire in the channel if it makes sense, he added.

"We want a company with admirable market presence and important assets complementary to the ones we have," Megan said. "Certainly solution providers are an important part of our acquisition strategy."