Helium-filled HDDs boost storage to 6TB

4 Nov 2013
Ultrastar He6

HGST claims it's made a breakthrough by replacing air with helium in HDDs

HGST has come up with a way to pack more punch into data centre storage by stuffing its hard-disk drives with helium.

The Western Digital subsidiary has started shipping the 6TB Ultrastar He6, a high-capacity drive that it claimed is considerably faster, cooler and more power-efficient than normal HDDs.

Unlike standard HDDs, which contain five platters rotating in filtered air, the Ultrastar He6 uses helium, which is less resistant, lighter and cooler than air. The reduced friction and temperature mean disks can spin for longer on less power – allowing HGST to pack in seven platters and increase storage to 6TB from the usual 4TB.

Since the drives shouldn't experience the same wear and tear as standard HDDs, HGST claimed its devices will last longer and therefore cost less in the long run, although the company hasn't revealed prices yet.

No gas leaks

HGST said it had to develop a way of sealing the drives hermetically to prevent helium leaks. That technology, it said, means the drives can also be safely dunked in cooling liquid without getting damaged, something not currently possible with standard drives.

The drives measure 3.5in, weigh 640g and consume 5.3 watts when idle, the company said. HGST has already tested the drives with existing partners, including HP, Netflix, Huawei and CERN, and is targeting the enterprise market.

Currently Seagate leads the enterprise HDD market, but helium-filled drives could change the game, according to IHS iSuppli.

The analysts said in January that growing demand for higher performance HDDs could catapult the company to the top of the market – not least because competitors might struggle to catch up.

"Other HDD manufacturers — like archrival Seagate as well as Toshiba, the third remaining HDD player after Western Digital acquired Hitachi — could also develop their own scaling technologies to compete with helium filled offerings," said analyst Fang Zhang earlier this year.

"However, technological difficulties and patent issues could present challenges and delay submissions from Western Digital's rivals," she added.

HGST claimed the breakthrough would ease the pressure on data centre operators to find ever more efficient ways to store more at lower costs.

"This is a huge feat, and we are gratified by the support of our customers in the development of this platform," said marketing vice-president Brendan Collins.

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