Helium Will Remain Exclusive for High-Capacity Applications, For Now

Typically, companies tend to introduce new technologies with their high-end products (either enthusiast or enterprise) and then adopt them for their application-specific and mainstream client devices. Over time, what once was an exclusive feature of ultra-high-end products, becomes an integrated part of mass-market parts. This might be the case with helium-filled hard drives, according to Seagate.

The density of helium is seven times lower than that of air. It allows hard drive makers to install up to seven platters into standard 3.5” HDDs. It also reduces power consumption, thanks to lower resistance for the movement of the heads and the platters and higher capacity per 3.5-inch unit. The lower motion resistance also aids in improving the accuracy of the positioning of the heads. HGST introduced helium-filled HDDs for cloud datacenters in 2013 and this year Seagate announced its first 10 TB helium hard drives targeting the same market segment. Helium has enabled both vendors to increase capacities and reduce power consumption of some of their enterprise-grade HDD product lines. As the implementation suggests, Helium based hard drives are sealed units.

Back in November, Seagate disclosed that its experiments with helium began in early 2000s and the company had 12 years experience with the technology. Mark Re re-affirmed that Seagate was indeed very familiar with helium and that its sealed platform was robust. However, this does not mean that it intends to use it across many product lines. In fact, as of now, Seagate does not even have a marketing name for its hermetically-sealed HDD technology (unlike HGST's HelioSeal nomenclature), an indicator that helium-filled hard drives from Seagate are not currently aimed at consumers.

Update: While Seagate has yet to announce a complete roadmap to their helium drive efforts, after publishing this article I’m hearing that this may soon be changing. In which case we may finally see helium technology further diffuse into consumer, mass-market drives.

While filling hard drives with helium helps to position heads more accurately (something expected to become more important as tracks get narrower), Seagate has also reduced fluid flow forces inside HDDs using purely mechanical solutions and plans to continue refining its technology. Therefore, helium is not a must for the next-generation hard drives that employ HAMR, TDMR or other technologies that improve areal densities with smaller and narrower pitches and tracks.

Western Digital, on the other hand, recently introduced its new helium-filled WD Red, WD Red Pro and WD Purple hard drives for consumers, SMB and video surveillance applications. In addition, their new single-bay external DAS (direct-attached-storage) solution (My Book 8TB) is also using a 5400 RPM helium drive. This is a clear indicator that HGST’s helium technology is getting more affordable.

Seagate believes that maximization of capacity per drive (per rack and per square meter, to be more precise) and minimization of power consumption are the two features of importance to data centers (which is why seven platters per HDD and lower-power motors make sense). Meanwhile, as things like fluid flow forces can be mitigated using various other means, usage of helium inside HDDs outside of capacity-demanding applications is not justified right now, according to Seagate.

In our discussions, Mark asserted that it does not make a lot of financial sense to develop helium-based HDD platforms for applications that do not require maximum capacity. Though, bear in mind that large corporations like Seagate are always developing a variety of technologies and platforms and can use them when the time is right. Therefore, if Seagate sees no value in helium for non-leading-edge HDD platforms at this time, it does not mean that the company cannot introduce inexpensive helium-filled HDDs in the future. 

To sum up, at present, usage of helium inside the Seagate Enterprise Capacity 10 TB HDD gives the company a high capacity product for enterprise applications. However, Seagate believes that helium is not something that is needed outside of capacity-demanding applications at the moment. While Seagate did not disclose its helium roadmap to us, Mark Re made it clear that that the company does have one.

Seagate to Expand Usage of SMR Two-Dimensional Magnetic Recording Due in 2017
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  • Notmyusualid - Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - link

    Just lost my Seagate 4TB 2.5" internal disk last week.

    Luckily my most precious things were backed-up elsewhere, but dam, 2.4TB lost.
  • jwcalla - Thursday, July 7, 2016 - link

    I'm honestly fed up with the poor reliability of HDDs. Of the three ones I still had in service, two are dead, and I'll never buy those two brands again.
  • Michael Bay - Thursday, July 7, 2016 - link

    Out of not so idle interest, what were they?
  • kamm2 - Thursday, July 7, 2016 - link

    This was in the back of my mind the whole time I read this article. What good is any of this if the damn drives keep dying? Maybe things are different on the enterprise side but I've given up on Seagate drives.
  • jbrizz - Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - link

    Can we just have 5.25 inch hard drives again? I don't care so much about density at home, but I need to hoard more files!
  • rstuart - Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - link

    I like most have move to use SSD exclusively for the, hmm, "boot drive", But I do use HDD's for media storage where only the biggest highest density drive works. SSD's are currently about an order of magnitude more expensive per byte in this area. At a wild guess SSD's might reach price parity in a decade, but for now the HDD's are the only sane choice.

    I'm currently struggling to fit in 6TB. My guess is 10Tb would be enough for the foreseeable future, and 20Tb would cover everything I am every likely to need. So I rather pleased to see Mr Re say they will hit 20Tb in a few years.
  • patrickjp93 - Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - link

    Samsung is hitting 15TB this year, so Seagate is done in enterprise. The performance/watt/$ is just vastly superior for SSDs. Once storage density is also in the wheelhouse of SSDs, the scales will tip and never go back.
  • gospadin - Thursday, July 7, 2016 - link

    absolute density (TB/m3) is already in SSD's advantage

    The biggest 2.5" HDD you can buy today is 2TB. In that form factor, Samsung is currently selling 4TB SSD, with 8TB/16TB drives announced.
  • Lolimaster - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    Do like me:

    4x6TB WD blues, so should be covers for some time.
  • anactoraaron - Thursday, July 7, 2016 - link

    This paragraph was enlightening -
    HDDs that use shingled recording write new tracks that overlap part of the previously written magnetic tracks. The overlapping tracks may slow down writing because the architecture requires HDDs to write the new data and then rewrite nearby tracks as well.

    Which explains why my 5tb seagate with this tech can't seem to get past 40MB/s when writing to the drive.

    Then read this - Ultimately, environments that involve a decent amount of writing might not be impressed with SMR performance, but the key figure here is density.

    Is anyone getting a high capacity drive going to be impressed with 2-40 MB/s?

    No. No they will not.

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