When SanDisk came to AWOL Company to help them launch a new flagship product, our creativity was instantly sparked. Their development team was working on a new technology that would revolutionize the large data centers on which the world’s leading web services reside. Being a leader in flash-based storage, their new InfiniFlash concept would replace entire towers of traditional disk-based storage with one compact 3U rack-mounted unit. Half a petabyte of storage in a suitcase sized module.
Being a company that most consumers associate with small flash-storage drives and USB sticks, venturing into a new product category was both exciting and challenging. The design had to deliver on many fronts: convincing IT managers that SanDisk was a serious player in rack-mounted storage, that it was a premium-quality product engineered to last, that managing and servicing the internal flash bay was quick and intuitive, and that it established a unique SanDisk visual identity in the crowded, dim, and chaotic environment of leading data centers.
Our team started with a visit to these data centers, the physical footprint of services like Google and Facebook. They are hot, loud, and crowded with rows of servers of all types of brand, size, color, and age. What would it take to stand out in this environment, and yet also fit right in?
Then, we analyzed the initial InfiniFlash engineering architecture: the layout of each flash module, required cooling areas, mounting to the rack chassis, internal PCBs and cable routing. We quickly discovered that our design efforts were best spent in making the unit as easily serviceable as possible, and also creating a unique front bezel that visually conveys key attributes to the user/buyer/installer/servicer.
The AWOL team used this basic architecture to sketch as series of initial concepts. We explored ways to boldly showcase the SanDisk brand, and ways to subtly imply it. We delved into a range of patterns, graphics, materials, and manufacturing methods. Ultimately, a concept was chosen that featured a subtly sculpted array of CNC-milled aluminum cylinders. When stacked together, this pattern would create a unique but subtle wave-like effect of highlight and shadow across the face of the storage racks. A visual metaphor for the incredible scalability of their advanced flash storage technology. The anodized CNC-machined aluminum bezel would also convey a sense of premium quality: entirely appropriate for a product with many many zeros in its price tag.
On the usability front, simple pushable paddles replaced the standard (and frustrating) thumb screws that mount the drive to the rack. Users would simply push the side paddles, and the entire drive would slide out to access the internal flash modules. These in turn would easily lift out via locking levers for instant hot-swap servicing.
After the initial sketch concept was selected, we moved into 3D CAD, using Catia to build a 3D model that represented our design intent, yet was flexible enough for frequent adjustments. Liaising with external engineering teams, we iteratively refined the design until it was ready to transition to final engineering and manufacturing. Final renderings completed in Keyshot.
Our design portion was only a small portion of the development process. After incredible effort by the entire project team, the SanDisk InfiniFlash was released in 2016 to great acclaim. For more information, check out this video.
Team Members: Chris Clark, Eduardo Salazar, Andy Logan