Nov 07 2013

Why Helium in Hard Drives Is Good for Business

The gas, typically used to fill balloons, is now being used in enterprise hard drives to boost storage capacity.

Don’t call it a comeback, because the hard-disk drive never left.

It’s true that solid-state storage has plenty of advantages over hard-disk storage. It’s faster, and it breaks less. But HDD storage is cheaper than SSD storage, so many consumers and companies continue to rely on it for their storage needs.

As proof of the vitality left in HDD technology, Western Digital has announced a breakthrough that allows it to increase the storage capacity and reduce the power consumption of HDD at the same time — and all it had to do was add a little helium.

The company’s HGST brand announced its first 6 terabyte, helium-filled hard drive on Monday.

“Not only is our new Ultrastar helium hard drive helping customers solve data center challenges today, our mainstream helium platform will serve as the future building block for new products and technologies moving forward,” said Brendan Collins, HGST’s vice president of product marketing in a press release.

How Helium Improves HDD Functionality

A little air goes a long way in hardware technology, especially in a small box full of spinning disks and electricity.

Arik Hesseldahl of AllThingsD does a great job of explaining how and why the helium added to HGST’s hard drives makes a difference in capacity and power management.

It turns out that the insides of hard drives are pretty violent places. There’s a lot of high-speed motion, what with the disk platters spinning at several thousand rotations per minute, and the head moving back and forth across its surface. If you’ve ever held your arm out the window of a fast-moving car, you get some sense of the problem.

All that drag from the air limits the number of disk platters that can be stacked inside a single drive. Right now, the standard calls for five platters inside a one-inch-high drive enclosure. Building a sealed drive that’s packed with helium eliminates that drag, and thus allowed for platters to be packed inside the enclosure more tightly. Where you once could fit only five platters, you can now fit seven. That means more storage capacity per drive. The first drive out of the chute has a capacity of six terabytes, versus four for conventional drives.

It also means a little less power consumption overall, the company says. Less drag means that the motor spinning the platters has to turn less, and the drive runs a little cooler, meaning there’s fewer costs associated with that. They’re also a little quieter.

The idea to put helium in hard drives apparently isn’t new. It goes all the way back to the 1970s, according to a report from MIT Technology Review. In the past, however, the challenge was figuring out how to contain the helium over an extended period of time, since the gas is prone to leaking.

But HGST made a breakthrough on this front using hermetic seals as part of its patented HelioSeal process. The company claims that this makes the Ultrastar “the industry’s first hermetically sealed helium-filled HDD that can be cost-effectively manufactured in high volume.”

So far, big-name customers such as HP, Netflix and CERN are testing the helium-filled drives. But the ideal use case for businesses lies around cold storage. Hesseldahl explains the concept and uses Facebook to illustrate how cold storage would be useful in a business environment.

Mike Cordano, HGST’s president, told me that the primary application everyone is talking about is cold storage. This is that “write once, retrieve occasionally” model of long time storage that is proving to be a fundamentally tricky prospect for companies like Facebook. The problem there is around old Facebook photos. They have to be stored, but even if you only look at them once a year or less, they still have to be accessible. It used to be that old data that is rarely used was stored on tape — not an option in the Facebook era. And scores of other companies face similar problems.

With improvements in capacity, power and cooling combined with the affordability of spinning-disk technology, you might find more IT workers becoming “airheads” for helium-filled HDDs.