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It might seem that the hard drive is the forgotten son of data storage with all the attention that solid state drives (SSDs) get in the media.  The old standby for inexpensive data storage has made a comeback over the last six months, thanks to a new spin on hard drive technology that makes them faster, larger, and more reliable. Using helium in hard drive construction, Western Digital’s enterprise arm HGST is bringing HDDs back in vogue. It has been a challenge keeping them on our warehouse shelves.

How does a helium hard drive work?

Seal up a hard drive and fill it with helium and it gets faster and gains capacity. This happens because the architecture of any hard drive requires a very thin layer air to act as a cushion between the spinning read/write platters. Replace that air with helium, a gas that is seven times less dense than air, those platters can spin with less resistance, giving the hard drive a boost in RPMs and efficiency. The spinning platters also create less turbulence with helium, meaning the layer of helium separating them can be even thinner, which means you can add more platters in the enclosure. Helium drives pack seven platters in an enclosure, whereas standard HDDs are equipped with five.

When the HGST Ultrastar He8 arrived on the market, it was the first hard drive to reach a 6 TB capacity in the 3.5-inch form factor. This represented a 50 percent capacity boost over the other 4 TB hard drives on the market when it arrived in September 2014. It has other selling points too:

  • Choice of SATA or SAS interface
  • 5-year warranty
  • Rated for 24/7 usage
  • Consumes 23 percent less energy

The first shipment HGST Ultrastar drives were snapped up in a matter of days, according to Newegg merchandising manager Jason Chen. It wasn’t so much consumers or business users that were after the new hard disk technology so much as HGST competitors. “Seagate and Intel nearly bought us out when the Ultrastars first came in,” Chen says.  The assumption was that they were copying the technology, or at least considering copying it.

As of yet, HGST helium technology has not seen competition from other manufacturers. Seagate has put on the market an 8 TB drive of its own utilizing different technology called shingled magnetic recording (SMR), which overlaps memory tracks on a hard drive platter to increase capacity. The 8 TB Seagate Archive HDD is designed for archived cold storage—it provides good per-gigabyte value but at lower RPMs, which makes it best suited for bulk data not meant for frequent recall.

Demand for helium HDDs is picking up. HGST told Techradar in March that it has shipped more than one million Ultrastar HDDs since they became available to consumers. HGST has announced that they are picking up production on helium, and expects price per gigabyte to come down even further as 2015 progresses. The company expects its HDD line to be entirely helium by 2016.

HGST also making plays in flash memory

HGST entered into the enterprise flash storage space with the Ultrastar SN100, a PCIe solid state drive (SSD), around the same time the helium hard drives became available. It uses NAND technology that belongs to Toshiba’s OCZ, a company it competes against in the enterprise space.

Additionally, HGST’s recent acquisition of flash array maker Skyera might shake that up. Skyera made its reputation with its rack mounted flash clusters and designed all of its SSDs in house. The acquisition aims to give HGST the intellectual clout to compete in both consumer and enterprise flash sectors.

In any case, when it comes to SSD and helium hard disk technology, HGST is a company to keep an eye on in the near term.

Is the Helium Hard Drive the Future of Cheap Storage?
Article Name
Is the Helium Hard Drive the Future of Cheap Storage?
The helium hard drive has made HDD storage hip in the age of solid state drives.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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