Helium-Filled Hard Drives Faster Cooler Bigger
November 4, 2013

New Helium-Filled Hard Drives Bigger, Faster And Cooler Than Predecessors

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Last September, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST) announced that they planned to revolutionize hard drive storage by building hermetically-sealed disk drives filled with helium. The theory behind this change is that the lighter-than-air gas will create less friction as the plates of the drive spin and allow memory to be accessed more quickly.

Today HGST, a subsidiary of Western Digital, is shipping the worlds-first helium-filled hard drives. The 6TB Ultrastar He6 hard disk drive is also said to run cooler, use less power, and pack more performance into a lighter package than traditional hard disk drives (HDD).

“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 statement on the company website.

“This is a huge feat, and we are gratified by the support of our customers in the development of this platform.”

As explained by redOrbit last September, the idea of using helium is as novel as it is simple. Today’s most advanced hard drives have been stuck offering four and five gigabytes of storage, largely due to how many plates manufacturers could stack in the same 3.5-inch footprint.

Physics presented a concrete wall which traditional HDD manufacturers were unable to overcome. As the stacked plates of a HDD spin, they create drag which can cause the hard drive to work harder. The read and write arm of the hard drive sits very close to the plates and, under normal circumstances, must also fight against the pressure and friction created by these spinning plates to get to the necessary location on the disk.

Hard drive makers have been building in buffer zones to help reduce friction and drag, but were constrained to the hard and fast 3.5-inch footprint that’s become standard for nearly all applications. By removing all air and filling the drives with helium, HGST could remove these buffer zones, thereby giving them more space in the drive for extra plates. With extra room and reduced drag, the new Ultrastar He6 HDDs are able to provide speedy access to more storage space.

Simply replacing helium for air is a concept which was first brought up in the 1980s by California hard drive maker Xyratex. The difficulty with this procedure, however, was keeping the helium in and the air out. HGST’s new HelioSeal technology is the first to make hermetically sealed, commercially available hard drives a reality.

HGST plans to pitch their new drives to the enterprise market and large data centers which rely on multiple racks of hard drives to keep their data stored and backed up securely. The extra gigabyte of storage will likely be welcomed among those customers who have been stuck buying smaller hard drives for the past few years. Companies like Netflix, for example, will be able to use these drives in their centers to call up data (such as movies) and stream it to viewers more quickly. Netflix and many others worked with HGST to develop this new platform to improve their own data centers.

“As part of our efforts to optimize the delivery ecosystem for Netflix and our Internet Service Provider partners, we strive to build better and better streaming appliances. The high storage density and lower power usage of the Ultrastar He6 hard drives allow us to continue with that goal, and create a great customer experience,” said David Fullagar, Netflix’s director of Content Delivery Architecture.

As a completely sealed package, the new He6 drives will also allow IT experts to experiment with a new method for keeping the HDDs running efficiently — liquid cooling. When submerged in a non-conductive liquid, these would remain at a steady temperature even if they’re spinning for hours at a time.