What It Takes to Build an Award-Winning Drive

What It Takes to Build an Award-Winning Drive

WD_BLACK launched in 2019 as a brand purpose-built for the high-performance challenges of video game storage. As excellence is a lifelong pursuit that requires determination and talent in equal parts, the global team behind WD_BLACK has proved its excellence by being recognized as named one of Fast Company’s 10 most innovative companies in gaming for 2022.

With access to top global talent and the industry-leading technology of Western Digital, the new brand was well positioned to become an industry stand out.

“Western Digital decided to create the WD_BLACK brand because the company recognizes that this group, gamers, is important,” said Georgi Todorov, a technical product manager for flash at Western Digital. “Gamers are a well-recognized community, and WD_BLACK is saying we are making products for you. I think that’s important.”

But what does it take to make an award-winning drive? In a series of interviews, WD_BLACK leaders dug into their success, their challenges, and what it takes to build a best-in-class drive.

Cutting-edge technology

First, of course, is cutting-edge technology. From 2020 to 2021, WD_BLACK released the WD_BLACK D30 and the WD_BLACK SN 850. These innovative products stand out for their speeds, capacity, and several unique features specifically designed for gaming.

As game sizes balloon, the marriage of capacity and high-speeds is paramount for modern gaming consoles to get their best performance. This is where the D30 comes in. The D30 is an external SSD specifically designed for use with video game consoles, able to store up to 50 games and reach optimized speeds of 900MB/s.

“We are focused on solving gaming problems,” said Jared Peck, director of product management for flash business at Western Digital. “Chiefly, how can I get into the game faster? How fast you can load, get into the game, and start playing are all gated by how fast the data can move. The D30 was specially designed with this in mind.” These were design considerations that Peck and his team focused on. The team wanted the drive to store a lot of games, to give fast loads, and to look good next to a PC or game console.

For the SN850, the WD_Black team took those design sensibilities and applied them in the PC gaming market. In addition to up to 2TB reaching a 7000MB/s read speed and 5300MB/s write speed, the SN850 adopted several features that make it stand out in the gaming space including LED customization, a dashboard to help control and customize the drive, and a shift to the M.2 form factor. Most important was the addition of a heatsink to the drive to keep the component cool. This enables the drive to consistently perform at its full capacity without fear of overheating.

“From my perspective, it’s a unique drive,” said Anil Moolchandani, senior director of product management for flash business at Western Digital. “To design it with a heatsink has paid dividends, thanks to its thermal characteristics.” Since the release of the SN850, competitors have added heatsinks to their portfolios, but WD_BLACK was an industry leader in this respect.

The innovations in the SN850 made it a fast favorite in the PC gaming space, garnering high reviews and top spots in gaming SSD rankings from several publications and industry leaders. Mark Cerny, the lead architect for Sony’s PlayStation 5, even personally endorsed the SN850 as his drive of choice for the Playstation 5’s M.2 storage expansion.

“The SN850 kind of surprised everyone. People didn’t expect Western Digital to come out with that product,” said Moolchandani. “But I don’t think it should be a surprise. We have a phenomenal team working very hard to deliver excellence.”

A global team

Technology is only one part of the massive success WD_BLACK has seen. Without talented people from all over the world working extremely hard, these products wouldn’t exist. Every member of the team is quick to highlight all the people from engineering to marketing that make these innovative products a reality.

“The WD_BLACK team is massive and runs throughout the company,” said Peck. “The only way we get these crazy products to market — and some of these products are crazy – is a multiyear effort. We have hundreds of engineers working on these products, putting in years of hard work.”

WD_BLACK is powered by a global team, so the best minds in the world are all working on flagship products. But the global nature of the team also presents challenges.

“We have teams on almost every continent, so it’s challenging yet rewarding to have all these global colleagues,” Todorov said. “Scheduling is especially challenging since some people work on others’ weekends. But I think there’s a sense of comradery, that we are sacrificing something to make this a reality.” While the team is comprised of people from all backgrounds and disciplines, it’s their passion for gaming that ties them together.

“We have gathered a group of like-minded, gaming-oriented folks to make awesome products that solve problems,” Peck said. “We have a culture steeped in the technology that is gaming-focused. We want to ensure that we have enough people who still game so that remains part of our thought process, part of our DNA.”

Peck’s colleague Moolchandani feels similarly.

“We call them the end-users, but we’re part of that group. Us, our cousins, our friends, we’re all playing games, and we’re trying to make our lives faster and better,” he said.

Always looking forward

Of course, all this begs the question: what next? While the WD_BLACK team was tight-lipped about what they were working on next, they spoke on their strategy for remaining an industry leader and what the future holds. It starts with following up with more drives that continue to lead the industry.

“We don’t want to just deliver one great product, but we want to deliver excellence generation after generation,” Moolchandani said, “And the SN 770 is part of that mission.” The SN770 is another M.2 SSD from WD_BLACK, aimed as a more affordable alternative to the SN850 while still offering premium features. Outside specific products already in the market, Peck outlined a larger strategy for the brand.

“The way we are going to keep this leadership position is by constantly churning on what we’re going to do next, how we can solve new problems with our best technology,” he said. “We also need to keep our ear to the ground about the gaming industry. Even if there isn’t a consumer product for a particular problem, we are looking to be part of the solution.”

Beyond technology, workers, or a brand strategy, though, the key for WD_BLACK is its focus on the future. To stay ahead of the pack, the team is always looking to what’s next and never rests on its laurels.

“It’s very satisfying to get the award, but to be honest, it usually comes at a time when we are already looking to the future,” said Todorov. “Your mind is completely occupied on the next thing. Sometimes that’s two or three years away, but that’s how we stay ahead.”