Western Digital looks to remake both its own image – and the data centre of the future

Western Digital is looking to drive massive change on two fronts. They are emphasizing their strong enterprise data centres today, and that the company is about far more than low-cost JBODs and consumer drives. They are also emphasizing their ability to play a key role in driving the technology of he data centre of the future.

SAN JOSE — Perceptions based on consumer brands can be hard thing to shake – especially if a company continues to blast out the consumer products. Western Digital, the hard drive maker, is experiencing that issue. The company’s issue of course is that their portfolio today – and their aspirations – go far beyond hard drives, and they aspire to cutting edge recognition for enterprise products that span from the core to the edge. Western Digital is also aggressively looking to position itself for the future, with its involvement in the RISC-V  Foundation and investments in special purpose processors, optimized for Big Data and Fast Data, and which the company sees as the future for handling demanding enterprise workloads

Western Digital’s move beyond commodity disks is not new, although it has intensified in the last two years. They have built up their enterprise portfolio and technology with acquisitions which include Hitachi Global Storage Technologies [HGST] in 2012, SanDisk in 2016, and Tegile Systems last year. They have brought in data centre heavyweights like ex-HP CTO Martin Fink, the pioneer behind The Machine’s memory-centric computing at HP, and long time EMCer Phil Bullinger, who is perhaps most associated with EMC Isilon. They also continue to bring data centre products to the market, and have just made a series of important new announcements.

“We aren’t the company that you think we are,” Dave Tang, SVP Corporate Marketing and Communications at Western Digital, told a press and industry analyst event at Western Digital’s San Jose offices. “We see ourselves in a world where data has evolved dramatically.” From being a record of a transaction which quickly diminished in value, it moved to enable efficiency, automating tasks that used to be manual, and now has become currency with actual tangible value. Tang cited new research from the Internet of Things field estimating that by 2030, the value of data from IoT sensors will reach $3.6 trillion dollars.

“We are very excited about that environment and what our role in that world could be,” Tang said. “Two forms of data are fueling that growth – Big Data and Fast Data, and their architectural needs will be very different. There will also be additional opportunities driving the transition from the core to the edge.”

Western Digital sees their role in that cutting edge growth focusing around what they consider to be their unique ability to develop and produce special purpose processors, which they are doing within the context of the RISC-V  Foundation and its open RISC-V instruction set architecture.

“This is a long game for us,” said Martin Fink, who is now Western Digital’s CTO, at the event. “The work is quite foundational to where we are going over the next 5-7 years. We have largely, from a historical perspective, been a storage company – but we think the future is about data, and we think we are in a unique position to respond to that.”

So why are we talking about processors, Fink asked rhetorically.

“Processors for us are a means to an end,” he said. “We do not want to be in the processor business, or expect to make money from them, but we need to be closer to the processor and be closer to the data so that the data can thrive. We see the industry as moving from general purpose processing to special purpose processors that are tuned and optimized for a specific task. In a sense, they are like custom ASICs, but these are too specific, with development cycles that are too long. We want to come in somewhere in the middle, and optimize the processing to the task at hand. That’s not a new idea. But because so much of the world’s data lands on our devices, we think we can make a difference by changing the architecture for the data centre.”

Fink said that while CPUs aren’t going away, and likely will continue to exist forever, new special purpose processors that can transcend CPUs’ uniform resource ratios are becoming more essential.

“You need architectures designed for Big Data and Fast Data applications,” he said. Big Data applications around machine learning and analytics tend to require more storage. Fast Data apps like Blockchain and in areas like event correlation and security detection benefit strongly from large amounts of memory and high-bandwidth interconnect.

“On the storage-centric side, we optimize the processor for that and create a processing element that is tuned specifically for it,” Fink said. On the memory-centric compute side, which is a personal passion of mine, The Machine at HP produced 8000x performance improvements by moving to in-memory workloads.

“You completely change the architecture – that’s the opportunity we see,” Fink stressed. “You change the form factor, how data is stored, how you deal with resiliency – all that kind of stuff.”

The other element of RISC-V is openness.

“Independent scaling demands openness,” Fink said. “It means that we don’t have to do this all ourselves. It’s hard to do open source development in secret.”

The first set of cores being developed for the devices around the RISC-V value proposition emphasize power consumption capabilities.

“If we just tell companies, you should buy our great RISC-V processors, no one will listen to us,” Fink said. “Power consumption is the key value proposition that makes them care.”

The RISC-V foundation now has 120 members, creating what Fink sees as major momentum.

“We now ship in excess of a billion processor cores a year, and we have made a commitment to double that, as we transition the vast majority of our products over to RISC-V,” he stated.