Helium-filled hard drives may lift WD to the top

More than 100M helium-filled drives are expected by 2016

A perennial runner-up in the enterprise HDD market, Western Digital (WD) is set to release a line of helium-filled drives, a move that could boost its global market share to the top spot, according to IHS.

The helium-filled data center drives are said to drastically reduce internal friction, lowering power consumption by 23% and increasing capacity by 40%.

Developed by WD subsidiary Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST), the 3.5-in. drives are expected to be available this year.

According to research firm IHS, WD continued to hold the No. 2 spot in the enterprise hard drive market during the third quarter of 2012, the latest period for which figures are available. WD boasted a 45% share of drive shipments compared to Seagate's 48%.

WD's portion of the market has been growing in recent quarters as it focused more efforts on the enterprise market, which demands higher-performance hard disk drives than those in the consumer market.

IHS is predicting that the market for helium-filled drives will climb from virtually zero in 2012 to more than 100 million units in 2016 -- especially if high production costs are brought down.

"Helium HDDs could propel Western Digital to the top enterprise HDD spot, dethroning Seagate in the process," Fang Zhang, an analyst for storage systems at IHS, said in a report. "Western Digital says helium-filled HDDs can reduce power consumption -- an issue of concern for enterprise HDD users -- by more than 20%. And helium-filled HDDs can advance drive capacity by another 25% to 50%, without increasing platter density or drive thickness."

WD's hermetically sealed drives are filled with helium, which is one-seventh the density of air. The helium in the drives reduces drag on the disk's platters while the seals keep humidity and other contaminates out. Less drag means the drives operate at temperatures that are four to five degrees cooler than today's 7200 rpm drives, Collins added.

While HGST has not announced any capacities for the drives, they could be as large as 5.6TB, based on the company's own estimate of a 40% increase over current technology.

A sealed drive can also operate in more severe environmental conditions, according to HGST.

The weight or thickness of current HDD products can also be reduced by approximately 30% by stacking platters closer together.

Helium's nonreactive nature and lower density, according to IHS, should improve the speed of the HDD tracking arm, enhance drive performance through faster spinning of the drive, and eliminate mechanical issues like noise, vibration and turbulence. A better conductor of heat than air, helium also helps produce a more uniform temperature on the platter, and protects the coating of the hard disk head and disk to lengthen the life of the drive.

Seagate, as well as Toshiba, the third remaining HDD player after Western Digital acquired Hitachi GST, could also develop their own scaling technologies to compete with helium-filled offerings. However, technological difficulties and patent issues could present challenges and delay submissions from Western Digital's rivals, IHS said.

A potential obstacle to large-scale production is cost, largely because of the complexity of the manufacturing process. But costs could come down with the continued involvement of major hard drive and component manufacturers.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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