History of Western Digital hard drives

Western Digital is one of only three hard drive manufacturers remaining in the computer industry. But their history didn’t start out with making hard drives themselves. Let’s take a look at the history of Western Digital hard drives and what led them from making accessories to making the drives too.

Western Digital today

history of Western Digital hard drives
This Western Digital hard drive from the late 1980s is virtually identical to the Tandon drives that predated it. The history of Western Digital hard drives starts here.

Today, Western Digital is one of three companies who make hard drives. Seagate and Toshiba are the others. Western Digital bought HGST, the hard drive arm of Hitachi, in 2012 to eliminate them as a competitor. But the deal had significant regulatory concerns. As part of the deal, Western Digital had to sell some of HGST’s technology to Toshiba and operate HGST as a separate subsidiary, not fully integrating it with the rest of its operations.

HGST itself was a consolidation. Hitachi made hard drives for years, but in December 2002, IBM sold its hard drive division to Hitachi. IBM’s Deskstar line was generally reliable, but the infamous IBM Deskstar 75GXP devastated its reputation. IBM likes to sell or spin off divisions sooner rather than later, but post-2002 Hitachi drives bear more resemblance to IBM designs than they do to the older Hitachi designs.

And in May 2016, Western Digital bought Sandisk to become a player in flash memory and SSDs. Western Digital came under criticism in 2020 for not labeling SMR drives as such, at least not consistently. But having a flash memory business gives Western Digital options if and when hard drives’ time runs out, whatever the reason.

Western Digital’s early years

I’ve heard people say Western Digital has a 50 year history in hard drives. That’s not quite right. Western Digital was founded in 1970, but they started out making chips. Calculator chips, in fact. That became a problem in the mid 1970s, as market consolidation drove the profits out of calculators, but in the late 1970s, Western Digital transitioned to making chips for floppy drive controllers. You can find WD1770-series chips in all sorts of retro computers.

By 1983, Western Digital was making the hard drive controller for the IBM PC/AT. Soon, this meant Western Digital was making hard drive controllers for PC clones as well, and Western Digital plowed these profits into buying other companies, including VGA chip maker Paradise and PC chipset maker Faraday, as well as networking and SCSI chip lines.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Western Digital started making hard drives. In 1988, it paid $80 million for the hard drive operations of Tandon Corporation, the company who had produced the floppy drives in the original IBM PC. Tandon’s drives were unique in the stepper motor was off to the side, rather than underneath like Seagate. The first Western Digital drives look and behave exactly like their Tandon predecessors.

The Caviar drives

By 1991, Western Digital had modernized the Tandon design, using embedded servos and voice coils instead of stepper motors for greater speed and reliability. Western Digital started divesting its non-hard drive assets to focus on hard drives, which were a greater growth business for them.

But by 1995, Western Digital was starting to have trouble keeping up with Quantum and Seagate. It licensed technology from IBM in 1998 to help it modernize its drives, and it worked. While Quantum and IBM are no longer making hard drives, Western Digital is still in the game. Western Digital did experience some reliability issues during this era, but it tended to be confined to certain generations of drives.

In 2013, Western Digital became the last company to stop producing parallel ATA hard drives, which it had been selling alongside SATA drives for about a decade.

During the early 2000s, Western Digital started color-coding its drives according to purpose. Its Black drives are performance products, while Blue is its general purpose drive and Green is its eco-friendly low-power drive. Red is for network attached storage, purple is for DVRs, and Gold is for datacenters.

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