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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  • Zak - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    Forget enterprise. I use 4GB drives as local backups and planning to go up to 6 or 8. Show me affordable 8TB SSD I can use for backup. Reply
  • inighthawki - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    8TB no, but I'm sure I can find you a few good 4GB drives :) Reply
  • cm2187 - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    WD Reds? Reply
  • cm2187 - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    Actually even cheaper if it is for backups: seagate 8tb archive drives. Reply
  • Samus - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    First off, GREAT article Anton. This is what AT is all about.

    I don't have a single HDD in my house anymore. Between 11TB on AWS and 800GB in OneDrive, it all comes down to the data centers which will all be using this technology.

    Meanwhile the 480GB SSD's that cost $100 running my PC's and laptop have made magnetic storage irrelevant for my consumer use, so who can blame Seagate for not targeting me?
    Reply
  • trivor - Thursday, July 07, 2016 - link

    What everyone seems to be missing it NASes for the home with LARGE MEDIA collections. When you're looking at 2 GB for DVD rips and 4-5 GB for Blu Ray rips you need Terabytes of storage for $30/terabyte (or less hopefully) that SSDs can't touch. Even for full Blu Ray rips (some people want this) you're still looking at only needing 50 Mbps without any compression and even a lossless rip with Makemkv will take it down to 20 GB and will easily stream from a NAS with any decent spinning drive. When SSDs which are currently around $200/GB (for a consumer commercially available drive) to compete with spinning drives (say 3 TB @ $94 for a Toshiba or 3 TB for WD Red @ $109) then we won't see much in the consumer space. Not to even talk about 8 TB drives for around $200-$250. We are a long way from the demise of consumer spinning drives. Reply
  • CaedenV - Thursday, July 07, 2016 - link

    No kidding! I love my SSDs, but they are not going in my Nas any time soon. I have 5 3tb drives in a raid 6...that would cost a mint in SSDs still. Maybe I'll get there eventually, but it is going to be a long time.

    Still, it is a sin to sell a pc with a hdd as a system drive these days. Really wish manufacturers would stop that
    Reply
  • JlHADJOE - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    IBM showed us that magnetic storage can store a bit using as few as 12 atoms. That's far denser than any type of memory developed so far.

    http://www.wired.com/2012/01/ibm-scientists/

    SSDs will replace HDDs for most of the consumer market, but HDDs will stay around for bulk data.
    Reply
  • Cygni - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    It's 'ogre'? Is shrek around or something?

    Also if you read the article, you will see that this isn't exactly focused at the same market as enthusiast SSDs.
    Reply
  • Michael Bay - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    Tell that to 8Tb of media I have copying to the new HDD now. Reply

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