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Western Digital sees future written on disks, not clouds

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Interview Western Digital (WD) listens more than it speaks. The company's roadmap is rarely revealed and it sails serenely on saying nothing, while flash solid state drives (SSD) challenge hard disk drives and cloud backup squares up to WD's external backup drive business. We don't know whether it's in a state of denial or knows things we don't know and these upstart technologies have less substance than we suppose. Should we get real, or should WD?

WD would have us, politely, get real.

Flash

Flash is not the holy grail. It's just another storage medium and it's not going to take over the world. Hard drives store the bulk of the world's online digital data today and they will do the exact same thing tomorrow and the day after that. I paraphrase - this isn't Western Digital (WD) speaking directly. It's my spin on the WD position after talking to Richard Rutledge, WD's SVP for marketing. See what you think.

Richard said: "We see NAND flash having two areas of value. There is very cheap storage, below hard disk drive (HDD) capacity, such as USB flash drives, digital camera cards and mobile phones. You can get an SD card for $19.99 whereas a hard drive costs $50 or more. This flash is a very low budget purchase."

Then: "There is very, very, high-performance flash, the STEC products. In between the value of a hard drive is pretty difficult to beat." He characterises DRAM as the fastest storage with read/write speeds in the nanosecond area (10 to -9 seconds). Flash is in the microsecond area for reading (10 to the -6) but millisecond area for writes (10 to the -3), and hard drives are in the millisecond area for both read and writes. That's three neatly defined tiers.

WD's view is that the SSDs delivered in 2007 were re-purposed camera cards. The technology to speed flash writes - to make multiple flash chips operate concurrently - came from high-end camera cards. Early digital camera users wanted to take pictures quickly one after another, as they could with film, but couldn't with single-chip camera cards. So high-end cards were devised with up to four NAND chips, written concurrently. This led to SSD technology. STEC SSDs now have eight or more chips, hence the Mach 8 name.

How does WD know all this? Because it was one of the original investors in SanDisk in the late eighties and brought controller technology to SanDisk. WD owns some of the original SSD patents and Irwin Federman, SanDisk's vice chairman, is an ex-WD director.

Rutledge also wants us to know that the bulk of shipped netbooks, Asus Eee-type machines, use hard drives and not flash. It's as if he wants us to understand that flash is not walking over any HDD market.

Small form-factor drive developments

What kind of things might WD do to strengthen its HDD offering? Is a 15K rpm Velociraptor feasible? (WD currently ships a 10K rpm 2.5-inch drive called Velociraptor.) "15K is feasible," Rutledge said. "The market for 15K drives is predominantly servers ... We don't do products for every market. SSDs in the enterprise space challenge 15K rpm drives." The impression I took from this is that WD is unlikely to introduce a speeded-up Velociraptor drive.

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