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.
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.
Why WD Is Moving From Hard Driver to DC Equipment Maker
Company Making a Jump From Relatively Safe, Predictable Sector
WD has re-envisioned itself from storage-only to the bigger IT infrastructure/data center hardware market because “we’ve seen these architectural changes coming since about 2009,” Cordano said. “Broadly, this is a move from second- to third-platform IT architecture, but specific to what we do, the advent of flash as a practical and capable storage medium has been the main driver.
“We really had a simple choice to make: Do we want to become a long-term relevant company that has growth, or do you just take a very mature technology and optimize it for shareholder return? Both are valid strategies.” WD’s management and board chose the first of the two options, but it took some doing to change the course of the company, as one might imagine.
WD’s board needed some “education” to buy into moving the company from a legacy hard-drive and flash storage maker to an integrated company with multiple technology platforms optimizing its current solutions plus addressing the market, Cordano said. “Our customers certainly ‘got it’ early on, but it took our board a little time to see the vision. Now we’re starting to act on it.”
For example, WD came from its storage-centric perspective to be a major participant in Facebook’s Open Compute Project, the open-source hardware equivalent of Linux, Apache and myriad other software projects. Included in WD’s OCP storage projects are the “Igloo Cold Storage Concept” and “Architecting Highly Efficient Web-scale Cold Storage for Unstructured Data.”
Innovation Comes in Buckets
As far as innovation within its own walls is concerned, Cordano sees it coming to fruition in three buckets: organic innovation from within, innovation in improving its current product line and innovation emanating from engagement with partners and customers.
Internally, the CTO’s office is charged with identifying intellectual property that currently hasn’t been productized, in addition to markets in which WD does not compete. There is advanced product development in each of the company’s business units that also comes under the heading of innovation, Cordano said.
And when it comes to finding pertinent new ideas outside the company, WD invests in number of companies with excellent potential.
“We’re a strategic investor; we’re not investing for financial return as a primary result,” Cordano said. “We want to engage with and foster relationships with startups; we know that all innovation isn’t going to happen within the walls of our company, so we spend time with those relationships and engaging in that ecosystem. Where it makes sense to us, we invest in companies doing good work in interesting areas.”
WD will continue to seek out intellectual property as needed as it continues its growth spurt here in the second decade of the new century.
“We think we’ve put together the assets to be the biggest, broadest player in the storage business, and now we’re able to cross-innovate with other products to build infrastructure,” Cordano said.
“When data center architectures of the future are being designed and built, we’ll have a seat at the table and be active participants in helping define what those are as they evolve over time.”