Howard Marks

Network Computing Blogger

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Western Digital Buys Virident To Battle Flash Giants

HGST, a wholly owned subsidiary of Western Digital, acquired PCIe flash specialist Virident yesterday in a cash deal for $685 million. The move equips Western Digital/HGST to go head-to-head with major flash foundries such as Intel/Micron, Samsung and Toshiba.

Western Digital/HGST is assembling a significant portfolio in the flash arena. It started with a longstanding co-development program with Intel for SAS interface SSDs.

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These drives go into external storage systems where SAS's dual porting supports redundant controller architectures, which allows each drive to be independently connected to two controllers. Intel sells SSDs for the server side with PCIe and SATA interfaces, leaving SAS drives to HGST and its relationships with array vendors.

This spring, Western Digital's management decided that because there were no more disk drive vendors to acquire it would look for growth from flash.

This was a major turn for the company; before acquiring HGST, and as a result the SAS SSD line, Western Digital mostly sold SSDs for industrial applications where ruggedness, not speed, is the prime virtue.

[As the SSD market heats up, find out which companies are poised to thrive in "SSD Vendors: Which Will Win?"]

To that end, the company in June picked up sTec, the down-on-its-luck enterprise SSD pioneers, which brought a range of enterprise SSDs including a new PCIe design, into Western Digital's portfolio. In July, it bought Velobit for server-side caching software.

Where Was Seagate?

While Western Digital/HGST has been on an acquisition spree, I thought that if anyone was going to purchase Virident, it would be Seagate.

In January, Seagate invested $40 million dollars in Virident and started marketing the Virident FlashMAX cards as its X8 Accelerators. Seagate was also granted a seat on Virident's board.

It was a good partnership for both companies; Seagate gave Virident some enterprise credibility, while Virident filled the PCIe gap in Seagate's flash line. In the spring, EMC started using Virident's cards in EMC's XtremSF bundles.

Seagate may have to look for a replacement for Virident in its flash portfolio. One candidate is Fusion-io, the PCIe flash card market leader. But if Seagate wants to make an acquisition, it's going to be expensive. Fusion-io has a market capitalization of around a billion dollars, and on Monday is closed at $13.60, which was a rise of 25% for the day. Clearly, the market sees the Virident acquisition as good for Fusion-io. On the upside for Seagate, it should make a tidy profit on its $40 million investment.

Into the Big Leagues

Virident's FlashMAX PCIe flash cards perform with some of the best in a crowded market, and have admirably consistent latency. Some other PCIe SSDs can process hundreds of thousands of IOPS, but will have latency spikes of 10ms or more. By contrast, FlashMAX is more consistent.

If Western Digital/HGST just wanted PCIe SSDs to sell, it could have run with the sTec design. Virident also brings its FlashMAX Connect software, which uses the FlashMAX card as a cache and also replicates data across multiple servers for a high-availability shared flash pool. Now the company has SSDs across the enterprise market and a full suite of software to manage them with.

The big flash foundries--Intel/Micron, Samsung, Toshiba/SanDisk and SK Hynix--have, through vertical integration, a leg up on those that just assemble flash and controller chips into SSDs. Western Digital/HGST has made all the right moves to separate itself from the pack and compete with the big boys. Now all it has to do is bring all these acquisitions together and deliver. We all know how easy that is.

[Catch Howard Marks' informative session "SSDs In the Data Center" at Interop New York, from September 30th to October 4th. Register today!]

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