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Why WD Is Moving From Hard Driver to DC Equipment Maker

NEWS ANALYSIS: The AI/machine-learning era is the next arms race for companies looking to compete in the global market and exist in a meaningful way in 25 years.

SAN FRANCISCO–WD, also known as Western Digital Technologies, is well-entrenched as one of the world's largest and most successful storage hard-drive makers. It's also known as the proud owner—for $19 billion, last October—of SanDisk, one of the world's largest solid-state storage providers.

WD, founded long before the digital age (in 1970 and went public in 1978), has been growing steadily but has remained, in large part, under the radar. A lot of people don't remember it also bought Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST) five years ago for $4.3 billion, then added flash storage specialist Virident Systems and network backup software maker Arkea in 2013. WD also makes WD TV media players, among many other IT products, while serving as a strategic investor in innovative startups.

So why in the world would this hardware-oriented company serve as the key sponsor of an artificial intelligence conference here at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum? A lot of intelligence can be stored in WD's products, that much is certain, but this was not a meetup that focused on data storage.

'Long-Range Innovation'

If there is a key phrase that sums up WD's freshened approach to world markets, it would be "long-range innovation." The Irvine, Calif.-based company is building on its previous success to blossom into a new-gen IT provider that will compete with many other very capable household-name vendors to design and build data centers of the future.

"We see ourselves as infrastructure providers, and it's about the data itself—no longer about bits and bytes," Mike Cordano, WD's president and chief operating officer, told eWEEK. "What machine learning and AI is doing is finding more valuable uses of that data. They can't do it without our infrastructure, so when we talk about our taking a longer look into the future and being more engaged with the ecosystem, this (AI) is a perfect example.

"These guys who are doing fundamental research and ultimately developing commercial applications need infrastructure to run on, and as we define the ecosystem, we're part of it. We want to engage in a way that maybe was non-traditional for us on the past."

WD Connecting With New-Gen IT Genres

Some other data points from WD on its connection with the trendiest trend in IT—AI, machine learning and cloud analytics:

--The AI/machine-learning era is the next arms race for companies looking to compete in the global market and exist in a meaningful way during the next 25 or so years. It's pretty clear that the practical, everyday use of AI and machine learning in business applications is the most significant disruption in the evolution of computing since the cloud a decade ago.

--AI and machine learning are disrupting the storage market, one in which WD (including SanDisk and HGST) is now the largest storage company in the world (market cap $10.4 billion), ahead of Seagate. The sheer amount of new data pouring into storage coffers is mind-boggling; WD alone has sold 66 exabytes—not petabytes or terabytes; exabytes—of hard-disk storage during its time in business. And that is only spinning-disk storage, never mind the solid-state variety.

Log data, documents, images, videos—all that content has to live somewhere, whether in an electronic box on premises or in someone else's in a cloud system, but it has to be stored. WD wants to be the storer of as much of this data as possible. And it can handle a lot; anytime one talks about exabytes (1 exabyte is 1 quintillion bytes; 1,000 petabytes, 1 million terabytes or 1 billion gigabytes), we're talking humongous data oceans.

--With the recent SanDisk integration and Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) approval for HGST, WD has turned to transforming and innovating its product lines. The company touches virtually every aspect of storage in the data center, from high-performance flash platforms for high-performance and big data analytics to petabyte-scale solutions for quick access to long-term archives. For WD to stay competitive on the global stage, it knows it can no longer simply deliver devices.
--WD has more than 70,000 employees worldwide and some $14 billion in annual revenue. It is fast becoming a major player on the same journey as IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Dell/EMC, Oracle, Cisco Systems and a few others when it comes to providing platforms and accompanying services for enterprise infrastructure.

--While it does not have a major cloud solution to offer its customers, WD is deep into partnerships with major players and is able to bring those business options to the table if needed to create solutions.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...