Automotive Transformation: Three Challenges and a Moment of Clarity

NetApp is a $5+ billion enterprise (public as per financial earnings: 5,4 billion USD annual rev.) that has been around for many years as a trusted on premise IT vendor  In recent years, however, the company has been adapting to the cloud technology advancements occurring in the IT industry and the changing needs of its customers, which has resulted in its transformation into a leader in hybrid cloud data services.

TU-Auto recently had the opportunity to talk with Ken Obuszewski, who joined NetApp in December 2019 as General Manager of the new automotive sales group. The company’s global team has been formed to holistically serve the major OEMs and Tier One suppliers, as they address the challenges of connected, autonomous and electric vehicle development, at the same time as coping with market changes resulting from shared services.

Obuszewski sees COVID-19 as a “moment of clarity for the industry”, in relation to the various initiatives going on within many companies. He believes that, in many boardrooms, there were already debates going on about which projects should continue, and which ones need to be stopped or divested. The global impact of COVID-19 has emphasized the urgency of an industry rethink and accelerated its decisions.

NetApp’s historic business in the automotive market has primarily been in data centers. They work with most major OEMs and Tier Ones in this traditional capacity, but Obuszewski’s group’s objective is to build the business around helping these customers address three major challenges associated with connected, autonomous and electric vehicle development.

 One challenge is the digital transformation of the traditional data center as most automotive customers are exploring some shift to the cloud. The data center will still be a key part of the IT architecture, but some applications will move to the cloud. In parallel, the automotive IT teams are also trying to create cloud-like capability and experience within the data center. This transition aligns with the digital transformation trends other industries are pursuing and is the capability that NetApp has refined over the last couple of years.

Obuszewski says that, although the two other challenges are outside of the traditional IT realm, they need to be supported by IT. Autonomous vehicle (AV) development has required traditional OEMs to rapidly invest a great deal of money into competing with tech companies and startups that are focusing on the area. The problem is that the payoff is going to be a lot longer than was originally thought, although the R&D investment and joint ventures are still applicable to Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS).

The focus on AVs has meant a huge amount of real time data has been generated and needs to be analyzed using deep learning processes. NetApp has looked at the whole “mobility data pipeline”, from ingestion all the way through analysis, transformation, validation, splitting, training, model validation, training at scale and deployment. In many cases, data is moving between different infrastructures, clouds and often in different formats. There is a requirement to have the ability to access data, in any format and in any place it’s needed, to avoid bottlenecks that can delay the development process.

NetApp’s “data fabric” architecture spans on-prem, private and public cloud capability, and weaves the whole deep learning pipeline together. This allows customers significant flexibility to access data securely after the data ingestion phase. They have the flexibility to host their data in one location and make it available to a variety of services, both cloud-based and on-premises for services such as labelling, annotation and analytics. NetApp offers automotive customers the ability to design a Data Fabric suited to how they have uniquely implemented their AV development process, and allows them to see the cost impact of different approaches.

The third challenge Obuszewski identified is manufacturing and the shift to using industrial Internet of Things (IoT) technology in smart factories or, as some refer to it, Industry 4.0. Historically, NetApp has been in the factories with IT, but now that the operations teams are looking at developing their own smart factory solutions, they value the Data Fabric concept that can help with IoT and edge analytics.

Obuszewski also sees COVID-19 impacting the global supply chain. The automotive industry has a complex global supply chain, with multiple vendors. The pandemic has impacted the availability of critical parts, so now there is a real focus on supply chain management and being able to determine the precise location of key parts across the entire ecosystem, at any point in time. NetApp’s long-standing relationships with global cloud and enterprise software vendors can help bridge this gap between smart factories and smart supply chains.

The final component of the NetApp automotive strategy is a team deployed in Silicon Valley that focuses on the autotech side of the market. Obuszewski believes they can leverage their core relationships with cloud providers, to help deliver a cloud strategy and experience to enhance the agility of smaller startups wanting to work with Tier One and OEMs in the platform ecosystem. This is critical as OEMs move to create hardware and software platforms for these electric, connected and autonomous vehicles.

This shift to platforms forces OEMs to make massive investments in software, which further drives the digital transformation. The existing IT architecture must evolve to support global software teams using modern software development techniques, including dev ops and agile development processes, in order to rapidly optimize and test code development. Obuszewski is optimistic that NetApp is well positioned to help traditional OEMs transition into the tech focused companies they are now required to be.

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