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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  • drothgery - Saturday, July 9, 2016 - link

    It's complicated. There's a minimum cost to build any mechanical hard drive, and the cheapest possible flash storage device is cheaper than that. That's why you don't see HDDs in any applications that need less than 128 GB or so anymore. It's just that the marginal cost of additional capacity is lower with hard drives (at least, until you start figuring in complex TCO arguments for data centers with very large amounts of storage).
  • zodiacfml - Sunday, July 10, 2016 - link

    It is almost irrelevant due to economies of scale. Right now, HDD are still comfortable with their scale right now. They have to be scared as it might drop non-linear in a few years; their drives will become more expensive that they will have to produce fewer, larger, archival drives.
  • AnnonymousCoward - Sunday, July 10, 2016 - link

    "almost irrelevant"? HDD's entire play is cost/GB, and there's reason to believe they cost MORE below some capacity.

    "economy of scale" - you mean volume? Samsung already ships >10B memory chips per year, far more than Seagate units.
  • Danvelopment - Sunday, July 10, 2016 - link

    Hard drives will remain as long as price/GB stays well ahead of solid state.

    Seeing as manufacturers have been unwilling to maintain that for the last 4 years, all I can see is a death spiral.

    I bought 3x 2TB HDDs in 2012 for $99NZD each. The current cheapest 2TB HDD is $115. And the cheapest HDD or GB is a 3TB at $156 (slightly more/GB).

    Fark HDD manufacturers. They can't win on performance or reliability against Samsung SSDs, all they can do is win on price but that gap has shrunk so much in four years I don't hold much hope for them without a drastic move. SSDs don't have to reach the same price point to take over, they just need to be close enough when accounting for the performance gap.

    It also doesn't help that they've already lost the density crown and in a much smaller form factor.
  • Bobs_Your_Uncle - Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - link

    Just now (7/12/16 @ 19:17EST) heard on The Nightly Business Report (PBS) that Seagate:
    - announced earnings that exceeded analyst expectations
    - raised their projected income guidance
    - experienced their "best day ever" in the markets (measurement metrics not disclosed)

    ... oh yeah ...

    and Seagate announced that they're eliminating 6,000 jobs ...

    The future is certainly looking rosy ... I guess ...
  • neatfeatguy - Thursday, July 14, 2016 - link

    I hear Seagate is looking to close out a major branch location nearing the end of the year or start of Q1 2017. Location in Shakopee, MN or a China branch (sorry, I didn't get what location in China.....rumor is pointing to MN location so far and as early as start of December has been hinted).

    Makes you wonder how well things can really be going for them - unless this is a restructure to help them stay viable in the every fast changing world of storage technology.
  • truemore - Thursday, July 28, 2016 - link

    So I was having a meeting with one of the large corporate storage providers asking when they thought the "mass change" would happen from HHD to SSD for corporate storage.
    Interestingly even their technology people were surprised, but at the enterprise level the inflection point happened this year for primary storage devices. Given much better TCO over time and vast performance improvement with SSDs they have better short and long term ROI due to a better than expected 40% decrease in price per TB in the past 12 months and the large jump in maximum enterprise SSD size.
    According to their people they are pushing all customers as fast as possible to SSD for all hot, and most warm storage. For them it makes perfect sense since they have very few drives break, arrays can easily be upgraded lowering the number of RFPs per $ sold and the performance increase for the customers is frankly amazing in the enterprise compute environment.
    I wonder how this shift will affect us on the bottom, since large storage providers suck a large portion of the overall storage market. They may be the 600 gorilla that forces the market to make a quick move off of HDDs,
    I would also be curious how the better performance and longer life span of SSDs will hurt SSD/HHD producers over the long haul since there will be much fewer sales over the long term.
  • Gothmoth - Saturday, July 30, 2016 - link

    what i want from HDD´s is REABILITY, REABILITY, REABILITY.

    it can´t be that 10+% o harddrives from seagate die on me in the first 6-8 month.
    i have a small renderfarm at home and 8 sytems with 2-4 harddrives each.

    infant mortality of HDD´s is a real problem. and overall REABILITY seems to be getting worse.
  • Gothmoth - Saturday, July 30, 2016 - link

    sorry i meant RELIABILITY... :-)
  • profquatermass - Monday, August 29, 2016 - link

    Oh the Irony......

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