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Helium-filled WD drives promise huge boost in capacity

Density of helium is one-seventh that of air, thus reducing hard drive platter drag

September 13, 2012 08:02 AM ET

Computerworld - For more than 50 years, hard disk drives have run on air. That's about to change.

Western Digital is preparing to launch a line of hard drives filled with helium gas that is said to drastically reduce internal friction and thus lower power consumption by 23% while increasing capacity by 40%.

The 3.5-in data center drives, developed by WD subsidiary Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST), are expected to be available next year.

The hermetically sealed drives are filled with helium, which is one-seventh the density of air.

Brendan Collins, vice president of product marketing at HGST, said helium drives reduce 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.

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

"The industry has been trying to make this work for the past 10 years. They've been trying to ensure that the gas doesn't leak and that the drives can be efficiently produced in mass volume. That's the key to our proprietary technology," Collins said.

Collins called HGST's announcement more of a technology platform than a product. The helium-filled drives will be targeted for use in public cloud computing systems and in corporate data centers, he added.

"We believe the technology will be around for the next 10 years and will be the foundation of cloud-based storage in the data center," Collins said.

The helium gas-filled drives will let HGST increase the overall platter count from five to seven. At the same time, the technology allows for increasing platter density -- with more tracks per square inch.

HGST also expects to use helium drives for new, higher capacity drive technologies such as Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) and Shingled Magnetic Recording.

Both HAMR and SMR are about two years away from production, Collins said.

"I'm really interested to see how people react to [helium-filled drives]," said IDC analyst John Rydning. "I don't think people are aware that it's been in development for a long time."

Today, HGST data center drives offer up to 4TB of capacity on five internal platters.

While HGST would not say what capacity the helium-filled drives will sport, it could be as much as 5.6TB based on the company's estimate of a 40% increase over current technologies.

Ultrastar 7K4000
HGST's five-platter Ultrastar 7K4000 4TB hard drive.

Today's capacity limitations

All drive makers have been closing in on a storage ceiling due to disk platter wobble or vibration that comes with spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute.

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