Western Digital Brings Together Flash, HDD in OptiNAND

Western Digital is introducing a new storage drive architecture that marries the company’s expertise in hard disk drives (HDDs) with its growing capabilities in flash to help enterprises that are struggling to manage, store and process the mountains of data they are generating.

The company on August 31 unveiled OptiNAND, which integrates its iNAND embedded flash drives into its HDDs, which will give a range of organizations — from hyperscalers and enterprises to network-attached storage (NAS) and cloud service providers — a technology that will deliver improvements in HDD capacity, performance and reliability, enabling them to store the massive amounts of data being created now and that will continue to grow into the future. 

In today’s IT world, data is foundational to organizations pushing to more quickly develop products and services and remain competitive against their peers. At the same time, data is a challenge, not only in the amount being created — IDC is predicting that at least 175 zettabytes of data will be generated in 2025 — and but where it’s being created, with most of it in the near future coming from outside of traditional data centers, particularly the cloud and edge.

“What [customers] want out of Western Digital and what we deliver for them is this unique blend in our industry of bringing forward world-class technology and storage in both hard drives and in flash,” Ashley Gorakhpurwalla, executive vice president and general manager of Western Digital’s HDD business, said during the company’s virtual HDD Reimagine event. “We know that small incremental changes and improvements in the technology are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. As we’ve gone forward, we’ve looked at a road map where we can deliver fundamental strides in technology development and innovation across the portfolios of both flash and hard drives to deliver world-class storage at scale.”

Plans Began with SanDisk Acquisition

Western Digital, a long time HDD vendor, took a significant step into the flash storage space in 2016 when it bought SanDisk in a $19 billion deal that came at a time when customers began to increasingly look to solid-state drives (SSDs) to store data. However, HDDs are still in the mix. A recent report by market research firm TrendFocus found that the growth of hyperscale environments, rising OEM demand as the industry rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic and the growth of the Chia cryptocurrency is fueling demand for HDDs.

In this mix comes OptiNAND, which will be foundational to Western Digital’s upcoming drives. The first products coming with the OptiNAND architecture will leverage innovations like HelioSeal (replaces air inside the drives with helium to make for better capacity and performance) and triple stage actuator technology (for more tracks per inch, or TPI, which drives higher areal density), to deliver 2.2 terabytes per platter. This will build on the capacities in the vendor’s ePMR technology.

Western Digital already is shipping to select customers samples of new nine-disk, 20TB ePMR flash-enhanced drives leveraging OptiNAND. Gorakhpurwalla also stressed that OptiNAND will continue to be incorporated into future products, with one of the company’s goals being to deliver a 50 TB drive sometime in the coming years.

Products on the Way

What Western Digital executives did on August 31 was introduce the OptiNAND technology itself. Products leveraging the technology will be released in the future. Gorakhpurwalla said that Western Digital has “a pipeline, a roadmap of features, capabilities and results and optimizations that come over time that we’ve already planned out.”

The company is already ramping volume and production of technology, he said.

“This is a platform where we are combining iNAND with the hard drive technology,” Siva Sivaram, president of global technology and strategy at Western Digital, said during the event. “It is not something that you can buy off the shelf and put it into a hard drive. This is developed because the technology development organizations [within the company] work hand in hand, understanding fully what the drive is doing, understanding fully where the NAND mechanisms are. We combine the two, the exact synergy. … It improves the capacity of the drive in a quantum fashion [and] increases the areal density of the drive in a measurable, quantifiable fashion. It improves the performance of the drive and it improves the reliability of the drive.”

A key to developing OptiNAND was reworking the firmware algorithms and system-on-a-chip (SoC) to enable the embedding of the iNAND flash onto the HDD.

Not Your Average Hybrid Drive

Sivaram said that OptiNAND is not the same as hybrid HDDs from the past decade that pulled together spinning disks with NAND flash cache. Rather than storing user data in flash, the NAND stores the metadata generated by the drive, creating more space on the HDD and increasing areal density.

The enhanced firmware algorithms take advantage of the metadata being offloaded to enable more TPI to improve density and capacity. Performance is improved by reducing latency through needing fewer adjacent track interference (ATI) refreshes and reducing the need for write cache flushes in write cache-enabled mode, the company said.

The third key improvement is in reliability where almost 50 times more customer data can be retained if there is an emergency power-off scenario. Officials also noted Western Digital’s integrated environment that includes supply, design, development, and test of flash-enhance drives.

Busy Times for WD

Western Digital’s introduction of OptiNAND also comes at a time when company executives reportedly are mulling a $20 billion merger with Kioxia, a Japanese flash memory chip maker and a longtime partner of Western Digital. Such a deal would make the combined company a significant figure in the NAND memory chip space that includes such vendors as Samsung, Micron, and SK Hynix, which last year said it was buying Intel’s NAND business for $9 billion.

It also would also be part of a larger consolidation trend in the semiconductor space, which continues to see global shortages exacerbated by the pandemic and which comes at a time when demand for memory chips — driven by such trends as 5G, autonomous vehicles and the dramatic shift to remote work — is growing.

Capital venture firm Bain Capital last year bought Toshiba’s flash memory chip business in 2019 for almost $18 billion. Toshiba Memory had been in a joint venture with Western Digital, an agreement that went with Kioxia after the Bain deal. Bain had planned to take Kioxia public last year but decided not to due in part to the pandemic. 

Jeff Burt
Jeffrey Burt has been a journalist for more than three decades, the last 20-plus years covering technology. During more than 16 years with eWEEK, he covered everything from data center infrastructure and collaboration technology to AI, cloud, quantum computing and cybersecurity. A freelance journalist since 2017, his articles have appeared on such sites as eWEEK, The Next Platform, ITPro Today, Channel Futures, Channelnomics, SecurityNow, Data Breach Today, InternetNews and eSecurity Planet.

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