Boulder, Colorado

Founded: 1979

Privately owned

Employees: 450

Founder and CEO Nathan C. Thompson has changed with the times in the data storage industry as the scale has grown from kilobytes to zettabytes.

There aren’t many miles from the birthplace of data storage company Spectra Logic to its current home just off the Diagonal Highway on Boulder’s northeast side. But there is a huge distance in terms of the company’s manufacturing capabilities and its impact in the data storage industry.

Back in 1979 while he was a sophomore at the University of Colorado majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, Thompson took his last $500 and started a company buying and selling used computer equipment. Headquartered in his apartment, the company, originally called Western Automation, developed computer circuit boards and then got into data storage.

The company now occupies four large buildings, employs about 450 people in Boulder and around the globe, and has become one of the largest manufacturers in Boulder County. It has offices in several states as well as in Tokyo and London. Its products, including robotic tape libraries, disc storage, and data storage management software, are used by some big corporate entities like Intel, Boeing, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, Cisco, and AT&T, as well as government agencies like NASA.

“I always felt that (data) storage had tremendous potential,” Thompson says, thinking back to a summer job with a mini-computer company, the Digital Group, while at Denver South High School and later, while still a CU student, designing and manufacturing memory boards in his basement. “It was a segment of the computing industry we could draw a line around and build various niche markets.”

Western Automation acquired the Spectra Logic name via a 1988 acquisition, formally taking on the name Spectra Logic Corporation in 1996. The biggest change has been advances it has made in data storage technology.

The company now talks about deep storage and data archiving in terms of “zettabytes” of data. As recently as 2009, the entire Internet was estimated to hold one-half a zettabyte. That reached an estimated 4 zettabytes in 2013. Spectra Logic has an upcoming white paper forecasting 12-plus zettabytes by 2020. Spectra Logic’s latest products, including its BlackPearl product ecosystem, family of tape libraries and ArcticBlue disks, point to that future.

Most of the company’s storage systems are built in Boulder, a short distance from the design facilities. Spectra Logic has about 100 people in its manufacturing group, with many of its products built in Boulder or assembled globally using about 130 parts depots.

“We will contract with someone to maintain a parts depot and parts will be pulled from there,” Thompson says. “Most products are built to order. We can put together a robotic library in a week.”

Thompson says its units use thousands of parts and most of those come through Colorado suppliers. That includes sheet metal for cabinets, fasteners like rivets, machine parts, molded injection parts, power supplies and cables. Most of the bare circuit boards come from Asia.

He calls the process “just in time to assemble,” which is similar to what some other innovative manufacturers are doing, including Toyota with its Toyota Production System and IBM with its Continuous Flow Manufacturing model.

Challenges: “Probably the largest challenge that my business faces is that the technology is always changing,” Thompson says. Coupled with that is the continuing per-byte decline in the price of storage. “It’s a business where everything is in motion. We always have to work on new methods of getting more storage for lower cost.” Technologies become obsolete and there is a steady march of new ones, from floppy discs to hard-disc drives to CDs to DVDs and USB memory sticks. “A lot of times you don’t need removable media; you can just store it using Wi-Fi.”

Opportunities: Changing technologies also catalyze opportunities, Thompson says. “What we see constantly is that companies wed themselves to a segment of technology and don’t think ahead and how the combination of economies and technology make something obsolete. That is an opportunity to take over a market and dominate it. We just have to run faster and deliver products at a lower cost.”

Needs: The company’s biggest need, Thompson says, is to find “the next generation of employees who will give us a future.” That’s why he spends more and more time helping recruit, train, manage and motivate employees, and one reason he volunteers his time to help the Alexander Dawson School, a private K-12 school in Lafayette, and CU. “I’m very interested in helping build the next series of rungs to help technology people,” he says.