Ignore Palo Alto Networks Inc: Here Are 3 Better Stocks

By Tim Brugger Markets Fool.com

Palo Alto Networks (NYSE: PANW) kicked off the year with a bang, rising nearly13% so far in January, nearly 4% since competitor Check Point Software (NASDAQ: CHKP) reported finishing 2016 with another solid quarter. However, Palo Alto investors have seen this movie before. Palo Alto stock was flying high with its string of reporting 50% quarterly jumps in revenue each quarter, which ended earlier this year.

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Now that sales growth has slowedto the low 30% range, and expectations are for even less in the quarter that ends at the end of this month, the roller-coaster ride that comes with owning shares of Palo Alto will likely continue. But there are a few data security stocks that offer upside without as much risk, including one ideal for growth and income investors. Let's take a look.

Image source: Check Point Software.

Check Point: Similar, but different

One reason Check Point stock is bumping up against its 52-week high is that CEO Gil Shwed's strategy of growing subscription sales -- a source of recurring revenue -- have been an unmitigated success. Check Point increased sales 6% year over year to $487 millionlast quarter, but its subscription revenue soared 26% to $110 million.

A year ago, subscriptions equaled 19% of totalrevenue; now that figure is 23% and climbing. Not only do recurring sales give Check Point a relatively solid revenue foundation, the shift is also in line with Shwed's focus on managing expenses. Recurring revenue costs less to generate over time than new sales, which is one reason Check Point offers less risk than its peer.

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Expense management helps set Check Point apart from Palo Alto. It helped drive a 21% jump in Check Point's earnings per share (EPS) last quarter. Check Point's total operating expenseequaled 50% of revenue last quarter, which has generally been the case. And Palo Alto? Including the cost of revenue, as is the case with Check Point's expenses-to-sales results, Palo Alto's overhead was approximately $50 million more than it generated in revenue.

Image source: Cisco.

Cisco: Bigger and better

Last quarter,Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) reported $540 million in security sales, good for an 11% improvement year over year. In addition to Cisco's in-house data security solutions, its $71 billion in cash and equivalents allow it to continue adding to its product suite, as it did last quarter with the closing of its $293 million deal for CloudLock.

Similar to Check Point and, to a lesser extent, Palo Alto, Cisco has adopted a subscription-based model. CFO Kelly Kramer in a November press release pointed to Cisco's subscription and software offerings "as we transition our business to a more recurring revenue model" as a key to its 3% EPS growth year over year, after one-time charges. Not bad considering Cisco grew total sales -- after excluding its now divested SP Video unit -- by 1% to $12.4 billion.

Another reason Cisco warrants inclusion on a list of stocks that are better than Palo Alto is the diversity of its business. Cisco has long been a leader in switches and routers, but it continues to add software, cloud data center, and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions to its arsenal, along with security. In addition to its relative stability and product diversification, Cisco's nearly 3.5% dividend yield also makes it an ideal growth and income alternative. Palo Alto does not pay a dividend.

Image source: Fortinet.

Fortinet: Consistently profitable

The closest to Palo Alto among these three stocks is Fortinet (NASDAQ: FTNT) in that it has also enjoyed soaring total revenue. Like Palo Alto, Fortinet's 22% increase in sales to $316.6 million in the third quarterwas down after a string of even stronger quarters. However Fortinet, like Check Point and Cisco, doesn't spend more than it generates and its profitability translates to slightly less risk than Palo Alto with its mounting losses..

Though not in Check Point's range of 50%, or even Cisco's 76%, Fortinet's combined cost of revenue and operating expense equaled98% of total sales. A rather sizable jump in sales and marketing-related overhead played a big role in Fortinet's costs last quarter, and it likely will again when it announces earnings on Jan. 26.

However, Fortinet is consistently profitable, and while not growing its top line as it had been, the 32% increase in deferred revenue of $934.8 million last quarter bodes well for the future.

The reliability of Check Point, Cisco's market strength and dividend, and the consistent profitability of Fortinet while growing revenue 20% or more each quarter makes each one a better stock than Palo Alto.

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Tim Brugger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Check Point Software Technologies. The Motley Fool recommends Cisco Systems and Palo Alto Networks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.