Helium Set to Lift HDD Performance

Arthur Cole
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Five Reasons to Conduct a Storage Assessment Today

Of all the developments to have hit the enterprise over the past year, probably the most surprising is the helium-filled hard disk drive. After all these years, and at a time when spinning media is about to be eclipsed by solid state, who would have thought that a revolutionary new technology would revive the device’s fortunes in time for the hyperscale data environment.

But that’s the way things seem to be shaping up following the announcement of the new Ultrastar He6 drive from Western Digital’s HGST unit. As a simple storage device, the drive is impressive enough: more than 6TB on a 3.5-inch form factor, plus a lighter, thinner design that allows for increased storage density without dramatically increasing either storage space or power consumption. At the same time, helium produces much less friction on the drive’s moving parts, increasing life span as well as data storage and recovery speeds.

The drives work best in massive scale-out SAN and NAS configurations, according to IDC storage guru John Rydning. As he explains to Infostor, the cost-savings and other benefits can materialize only when the disk is actually in use (natch), so any environment in which servers are constantly requesting data will see dramatic cost reductions with more efficient, longer-lasting spinning media. And combined with other advancing disk technologies like shingled magnetic recording (SMR) and heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR), helium drives could up the density and efficiency factor by several orders of magnitude.


But the helium itself is only part of the drive’s appeal, says TweakTown’s Paul Alcorn. In order to keep the helium contained, the drive is completely sealed to outside air and other contaminants. And this opens up all sorts of possibilities, like immersing the drive in liquid coolant to reduce operating costs even further. A note of caution, however: Helium is in high demand across a range of industries and supplies have been subject to disruption in the past. At the moment, the U.S. government is selling off its helium reserves as a means to stabilize the market, but moves are afoot to shutter the program, which would likely raise prices until the private sector ramps up production.

Still, this hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for helium in enterprise storage circles, with some estimates saying the market for helium drives could top 100 million units in as little as two years. And with Western Digital getting the jump on both Seagate and Toshiba in the helium-filled space, it is quite possible that we could soon see a new top dog in the enterprise HDD market. One has to wonder if it wasn’t the helium technology that led Western Digital to shell out the $4 billion-plus for HGST back in 2011.

All of that is water under the bridge, however. The fact remains that with storage capacity still in big demand as organizations adopt scale-out architectures, the advent of a new high-capacity storage medium that is both long-lasting and operationally efficient is nothing short of an act of providence.

If economies of scale kick in as expected, the hyperscale data center will undoubtedly feature a mix of solid-state and helium-filled drive technologies.



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