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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  • Ushio01 - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    I wonder how much of this will ever reach market? as SSD's take over ever more of the storage market the remaining HDD manufacturers will be required to spend ever more on R&D while dealing with shrinking revenue. Reply
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    The consumer HDD market is slowly imploding, but while it's roughly half of all drives sold that's not where the money is. The Enterprise HDD market is doing better. Sales are down a bit; but while Seagate/WD/Toshiba don't break the two segments of enterprise drives out, it's probably from SSDs chewing into 10/15k drives in servers not the high capacity 3.5" drives used for bulk storage. Seagates comments about the next gen of 15k drives potentially being the last tends to back this up, since they're talking about multiple generations of other drive types.

    Bulk data storage will stay with spinning rust until the price per GB crosses over in SSDs favor. Estimates I've seen on that a year or so ago were looking at 2025; but there's a fair amount of speculation there since the results of a half dozen generations of tech in each platform are somewhat speculative.
    Reply
  • Anato - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    That patent [1] is clear example how current patent system is out of control and not useful to society at large. Short recap, patents original idea was to give temporal monopoly to inventor who disclosed his invention. There was no right to own anything you invented, but it was seen that disclosing the invention would ultimately benefit society who, after temporal monopoly, could use the invention.

    Now opposite is true, there is nothing useful disclosed in Seagates patent! But we grand Seagate sole ownership to use Gold with Cu, Rh, Ru, ... or Mo in concentrations of 0.5-30% in HAMR NFT. How does this benefit us?

    Of course Seagate can't stop WD to use same alloys as WD have similar patents to sue back, but they both can stifle smaller competitors. I don't think there will be any more competitors in HDD space, but same applies to other fields and their patents.

    [1] http://www.google.com/patents/US8427925

    [Disclosure, I didn't read full patent application, did cursory review and didn't find anything of value]
    Reply
  • Zak - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    I was wondering why HDs never broke the 7500rpm and 15000rpm barriers. Reply
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    For consumer devices: noise. 10/15k HDDs are obnoxiously loud like an >40x CD or >16x DVD drive; except that they're spinning constantly not just for the few minutes it takes to read/write them. On the enterprise side, I'd guess implementation difficulty; probably due to vibrations was the limiting factor. If not mechanical strength of the platters themselves was probably the issue. Top end centrifuges can go to at least 70k RPM; but can be built much more heavily than a thin platter can. Reply
  • metayoshi - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    Not just noise, but heat. In a constrained system like a laptop or desktop, the spindle and vibrations cause a ton of heat to be generated. Just look at WD's last consumer 10k drive, the 1 TB Velociraptor. It's a 2.5" drive that comes with its own heatsink for 3.5" bays. You definitely can't put that in a laptop, and it hits a market in the desktop space which has pretty much been taken over by SSDs. Reply
  • piasabird - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    Still using hard drives. No reason to switch when hard drives are so cheap. When I watch TV on the Internet, It still works so no reason to change. Reply
  • pavag - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    Kurzweil curse.

    Nobody accounts the relative speed of price reduction. SSD will get cheaper per gigabyte than SSD before 2020.

    We will never see HDMR HDD. And there is a chance we will not even get HAMR.

    And article speculating about the date when SSD will beat HDD for price per gigabyte would be interesting.
    Reply
  • serendip - Friday, July 08, 2016 - link

    I'm not sure about this. On my laptop, I've got a 120 GB SSD I got ages ago along with a recent 2 TB drive. Both cost about the same when new. I think HDDs will continue to get bigger and cheaper faster than SSDs, at least until some new process tech allows for very high flash densities and low production cost.

    The main issue is price. There are still lots of users (like me) who can't afford huge multi-TB SSDs to hold everything, so they have to make do with a boot SSD and a storage HDD.
    Reply
  • jabber - Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - link

    So you didn't bother to ask why Seagate's HDD reliability has nosedived since the floods a few years back? Reply

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