Western Digital Hatches Raptor

With 'enterprise-class' Serial ATA drive, WD will try to single-handedly boot up a new market

February 11, 2003

4 Min Read
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Hard-drive maker Western Digital Corp. (NYSE: WDC) has launched a Serial ATA disk drive designed for servers and storage systems -- called Raptor -- which the company says is around 30 percent cheaper than traditional SCSI drives while providing the same level of "enterprise-class" features (see WD Launchs Serial ATA Drive).

The Raptor drive is a new direction for the 33-year-old Western Digital, which since the late 1980s has focused on the desktop PC market. But analysts say, while its Serial ATA drive does offer compelling cost advantages, the company will have a tough time as it tries to single-handedly bootstrap the market for drives based on the new technology.

The Serial ATA interface, whose development has been led by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) through the Serial ATA Working Group, is designed to provide higher reliability and better performance characteristics than parallel ATA. Raptor is based on the Serial ATA 1.0 specification, released in August 2001, which connects one drive per port (instead of having multiple drives share a single bus, as with parallel ATA) at 150 MByte/s (see ATA Claws Its Way Up).

The 36-GByte Raptor provides enterprise-class features similar to SCSI drives, including a rating of 1.2 million hours mean time between failure (MTBF); 10,000 revolutions per minute (RPM); 5.2 milliseconds average seeks time; and a five-year warranty. A typical ATA-based drive from Western Digital, by comparison, provides 500,000 MTBF, 7,200 RPM, 8.9 ms average seek time, and a one-year warranty.

"These are the characteristics of SCSI drives but for 30 percent lower cost," says Steve Wilkins, director of marketing at Western Digital.The company estimates four Raptor drives would have a street price of $160 each; add a Serial ATA RAID card from 3ware Inc. at $399, for a total of $1,039 -- or $7.21 per GByte. By comparison, four SCSI drives at $210 plus a $599 SCSI RAID controller would cost $1,439 for the same amount of storage, or $10.00 per GByte.

Western Digital is particularly interested in developing the market for enterprise Serial ATA drives because it has no existing SCSI or Fibre Channel business. It sees a major opportunity to rip into competitors that do, including Seagate Technology Inc. (NYSE: STX), Hitachi Ltd. (NYSE: HIT; Paris: PHA), and Maxtor Corp. (NYSE: MXO).

"Our competitors, once they get over the shock to their business models, will have to adopt Serial ATA," Wilkins says. "Every one of our competitors has a SCSI business, so they'll want to protect that... but they'll eventually have to eat their own babies." [Ed. note: Enchanting image.]

Western Digital is so sure that it is on the cusp of an "inflection point" in the enterprise drive market that it named the drive Raptor to evoke smaller, more cunning creatures that outwitted and outmaneuvered the larger SCSI dinosaurs.

"We're going to change the industry," Wilkins says. "We're going to look back on this in a few years and say, 'This is when something really big happened.' "Well, maybe. The future of Serial ATA has yet to be written. But industry analysts point to several challenges Western Digital will face in its attempt to steal away share from SCSI or Fibre Channel incumbents.

The first problem is that there's virtually no infrastructure out there for Serial ATA in enterprise storage and server systems, says Dave Reinsel, analyst with IDC. "The drive doesn't fit into any existing SCSI slots," he says. "I can't just go out and buy these WD drives and pop them into my storage arrays. They're trying to start a new market, and they'll have to cajole the systems vendors to build systems based on them."

Moreover, Western Digital is the only supplier of high-end Serial ATA drives today -- and OEMs are loath to adopt any technology they can't multisource, Reinsel says.

Another obstacle is reluctance by systems vendors to cannibalize their own existing product lines. "Hewlett-Packard Co. [NYSE: HPQ], for one, is probably not overjoyed with this drive," says John Donovan, VP of TrendFocus, a hard-drive market research firm. "The main source of their storage revenue are SCSI- or Fibre Channel-based drives."

Wilkins says Western Digital is aware of the challenges ahead, noting that the company has been working diligently over the past few months "with a whole bunch of partners in the industry to provide the infrastructure." Those include 3Ware, Intel, Adaptec Inc. (Nasdaq: ADPT), and Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL).As yet, no major systems OEMs have signed on for Serial ATA. Initially, Western Digital will target "white box" vendors and low-end server makers rather than the larger OEMs, which take longer to qualify components. "While we see those as coming later -- they're certainly in our crosshairs," Wilkins says.

That said, analysts say Serial ATA could grow very rapidly over the next few years. IDC forecasts that by 2006, Serial ATA will comprise nearly half the enterprise disk drive market. The chart below shows Serial ATA (SATA) cutting into sales of parallel SCSI (PSCSI) and parallel ATA (PATA) drives, with both Fibre Channel (FC) and Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) projected to grow as well. Meanwhile, IBM Corp.

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