Made in Boulder: Thad Corlette, Spectra Logic's director of operations in their assembly facility.

Made in Boulder: Thad Corlette, Spectra Logic’s director of operations in their assembly facility.

Driving up to Spectra Logic’s headquarters on Foothill Drive in Boulder, I saw their name on a manufacturing facility. Couldn’t be, I thought. The assembly of anything as commoditized as tape libraries must long ago have been outsourced to Asia.

Within an hour I had learned better. About 60 Spectra Logic employees assemble and test all its tape and disk libraries on site, although it buys everything from the cases to the drive motors and the tape drives from outside. But even some of those piece parts get an extra polish:  Lowly tape cartridges go through a “CarbideClean” process to ensure they are debris-free. Then (as I learned in a recent press and analyst event hosted by Spectra Logic) each tape is tracked for 40 health metrics over their lifetime and given a lifetime warranty before becoming Spectra Certified Media.

It was all a lesson in how a supposedly commoditized, obsolete product can be refined to drive enough volume and prices to support domestic manufacturing and innovation. OK, this isn’t like resuscitating a huge domestic manufacturing industry like TVs or textiles. But it shows what can be done with a seemingly ho-hum product, if those behind the technology truly understand its strengths and weaknesses, and have a passion for exploiting its unmet potential.

The folks at Spectra Logic, for example, can talk convincingly of how barium ferrite tape will let media manufacturers stuff far more bits into each inch of media than their competitors in the disk world – and how tape based on this compound will not degrade over time, keeping seismic, legal or video data safe for generations.

It’s the Software, Stupid

As in most parts of the IT industry, such behind-the-scenes advances in hardware feed the real innovation, which happens in software. While it’s known, along with IBM and Oracle as one of the survivors in the tape market, Spectra Logic stubbornly calls itself a software company and devotes of its R&D budget to software.  (Overall, it devotes 10-20% of revenue to R&D, about double that of the larger players, says CEO and Founder Nathan Thompson, and the company says more than 80% of its engineers are software rather than hardware folks.)

The entire operation had a decidedly start-up feel, from the dedicated room for pinball machines to the fat-tired bicycles workers use to ride among buildings. Execs from units that would be fiefdoms in larger company, such as development, sales and marketing, exchanged hugs and encouraging pats on the back as they moved through the complex, multi-day rollout of their strategy.

Of course, the Denver-area storage industry is still a far cry from its former glory days, and a chummy corporate culture will only take you so far. But it was surprising and encouraging to see a North American company innovating in hardware, and shipping the finished product out the door from our own shores.

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

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