The exponential rise of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence is impacting our day-to-day lives—from smart homes to interactive banking; and from better healthcare to more efficient defence and security systems. Driving the change are the reams of data we generate every moment. Where does all this data reside? On innumerable pieces of memory storage. About 45% of total data worldwide is on storage solutions provider Western Digital products. Its executive vice president, Siva Sivaram, 58, responsible for the company’s memory and storage technologies, says the American memory major ensures the data is secure and accessible to customers. With the gargantuan amounts of data we generate daily in our multimedia-rich lives, we will need more and more storage. This demand has the chip industry excited, says Sivaram. Edited excerpts from an interview with Fortune India:
Why are data and data analytics so important for everyone—industry and the government today?
Periodically in our history, big incremental steps have taken place. For example, when railroads came in the 1800s, people and goods could move easily from one place to another, thereby changing the rules of commerce. Similarly, data coming from various devices like an armband or an industrial robot, a self-driving car or a surveillance camera is all creating what is called endpoints. All the data gets aggregated; we call it the edge. And then from the edge, you go into the core and each has a distinct role to play. The data is being stored at every enterprise in different ways; either in the desktop, or on a cloud— either a public cloud or a private cloud. Since the volume of data has risen significantly in recent years, machines are able to detect and interpret the patterns in them. Then comes the hard work of converting raw data into information, information into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom. To do that, three things are required: storing, networking, and processing of the data. Our job is of storing and processing of the data, and getting it in a form that is secure, accessible, and available to our customers at any time.
So the processing happens as soon as you get the data?
We are encrypting and processing both structured and unstructured data at the same time and putting the right things in the right place. For example, if you have a big data lake—a big data reservoir—and run a query on top, the processing of that gets done either in real time or near real time. We are able to structure and give the data at the right place and the right time to our customers.
Since you have all the data, can you also use it for doing so many things?
Companies like Western Digital have to be very careful because we don’t own the data. The data is owned by somebody else. So if we try something else, we will be competing with other players. We provide every kind of infrastructure our customer needs on any device, data card, laptop, mobile, etc. Nearly 45% of the world’s total data sits with us.
How is a data infrastructure company keeping abreast with rapid technological changes?
We are a slightly different company than, let’s say, a Google or a Facebook or LinkedIn or Microsoft—they are all into only computational sciences. We go all the way from physical sciences to computational sciences. When you just say data sits in the cloud, in the end, there has to be a physical place it can reside in. So, we start from atoms and molecules and electrons to very high-level software; we span the entire spectrum. We are a unique company. Not many companies are in this form of business; whether it is magnetic media trying to figure out how do I store a 15-terabyte device in that small form to almost petabytes of data. So that’s the interesting part of our jobs. We are there wherever data is processed. Be it basic ground-breaking work or routine processing of financial matters.
Even the chip industry is trying to process more and more data on the smallest of devices.
There are two kinds of storage—magnetic storage with rotating media and then there is solid state on a chip. We are one of the world’s leading solid state chip providers. The silicon surface on which semiconductors are made is the most expensive real estate in the country—$2-$3 billion an acre. So we are building a 96-storeyed vertical building to store data. We are also into magnetic storage with rotating media.
What are you doing in the healthcare sector? We are working with the University of San Francisco Medical Center. They are doing large-scale breast cancer research. Any time a new breast cancer scan comes, we help the doctors scan the history from the 500,000 other scans that have been done in the past. The doctor can then take a look and diagnose it all by himself. While the doctor can make the connection by looking at the scan, his brain cannot think of the 500,000 scans that have already been done by our data centre.
How will your new technologies change the world?
I will give you a more precise example. In financial technology, there are so many stocks being traded at any given time and their data is very time-sensitive and trade very fast. In a customer’s back office, they will have all the data of their past transactions and transactions of the companies that have all done this before, everything is sitting in there. And everybody will be processing it at the same time, so it becomes a truly efficient industry; human inefficiencies don’t play a part in this. When your personal financial broker is looking at your data, he can say what is your history and what is the right level of information to give you. So, over time we think, at least, in this case, the financial industry will become human-free. A trading industry where nobody can game another.
What is your stand on the privacy issue?
When we give the hardware to people, we tell them the possibilities. We advise companies and governments on what is possible or what’s not, but we are a neutral third party. We are not the ones deciding on the privacy rules or on the security rules that you want to use. Clearly, defence data is something you want to produce and keep it here. But for financial data, we don’t know whether it should stay here, or can it be mirrored or not. Those decisions have to be made between the government and the application provider. We are a neutral third party in this. We advise people on what can go wrong and what won’t .
Tell us something about your India operations.
Fifteen years ago, we decided that we will not have a hub-and-spoke model for India, [or] use the country as a cheap labour force. We decided India will be its own decision-making centre as a network within the company. Even though we are a Silicon Valley-headquartered company, India decides on the product, product characteristics, gets it designed, gets it made. It also supports other data centres in the world.
This was originally published in the August, 2019 issue of the magazine.