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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  • anactoraaron - Thursday, July 7, 2016 - link

    Forgot to mention that it is a 5tb archive drive. Didn't realize that it would take me 3 days to archive 3tb to it.
  • kmmatney - Thursday, July 7, 2016 - link

    While all this new tech sounds great, all I want out of a HDD is reliability. In my house, HDDs are now just used for backup - I would gladly sacrifice performance, and even density, just to get a drive that I know will last 10 years. I still have G1 Intel SSDs from 2010 that are working fine as OS drives - so it's just a matter or GB/$ why I don't back up to SSD. It still seems like HDDs are nit-or-miss when it comes to reliability.
  • Lolimaster - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    4x6TB WD blue and get more drives to mirror data + maybe google drive 10TB plan?
  • AnnonymousCoward - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    Hitachi has significantly better reliability!

  • Lolimaster - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    Right now I wont touch a Seagate even with a 1000km pole. SMR is pretty much cr*ap for consumers. Where are my HAMR? 15-20TB drives?
  • Michael Bay - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    In 2020 somewhere.
  • zodiacfml - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    I have to agree to that first comment that they just have to give up. They are just slowing down their demise.

    Currently and years to come, HDDs will become archival devices were fewer consumer devices will have HDDs in the coming years. The company will need this volume/scale from consumers to lessen the price of enterprise grade hardware.

    If they cannot lessen the price for these enterprise customers, they will prefer SSDs despite costing more or having less capacity due to its higher performance and lower power consumption.
  • James_Edge - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    "While the evolution of consumer HDDs in the recent years was not fast, things are about to change."

    The thing is, nobody needs huge consumer HDDs anymore. The only reason people ever bought large drives was for storing pictures/backups and for their pirated music/film collection. Well cheap/affordable digital streaming services have made a massive dent in piracy, and cloud storage/backup services provide excellent storage.

    I honestly don't know any consumers who use more than 1-2TB of mechanical storage these days unless they are still hording all their VCD/DivX rips and .iso's...
  • jabber - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    Yeah I see the folks who have TBs of ripped anime/porn etc. etc. as having a mental illness. New form of packrat syndrome. Let it go.
  • AnnonymousCoward - Friday, July 8, 2016 - link

    You gotta wonder what's the BOM cost to produce a 0.5TB HDD vs Samsung's single chip 0.5TB SSD. And at 1TB, 2TB, etc. Are HDDs necessarily cheaper, being so much heavier and mechanically complex?

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