Helium: The Latest Speed Trick for Hard Drives

By Doug Mohney November 04, 2013

Western Digital's enterprise division HGST announced it is shipping a hard drive filled with helium. It's a slick move that increases drive speed and keeps hardware cooler (literally). 

The 6TB Ultrastar He(6) 3.5-inch drive is designed for high-density, "massive" scale data center environments. Helium – the same gas that fills party balloons – is one-seventh the density of air. Because it is so light and small, helium ultimately escapes from said party balloons and anything else that it is not tightly sealed. HGST has developed a patented process to hermitically seal helium-filled drives cost-effectively in high volume; otherwise, the drive would lose the helium and any advantages it provides as air replaced it in short order.

Since helium is less dense than air, you can spin drives and move read/write heads faster because there's less resistance. There are also some heat transfer benefits since helium transfers heat better than room atmosphere.

Image via Shutterstock 

Helium will serve as HGST's main platform for rolling out higher density hard disk storage technologies like shingled magnetic recording and heat-assisted magnetic recording, as well as pushing the bounds of "traditional" hard drive storage tech. Area density storage growth rates for hard drives have slowed and are expected to happen at a rate of less than 20 percent per year over 2011 to 2016, so moving to helium increases speed as Western Digital packs more plates into disk drives.

While helium is the highlight technology of the new drive, the Ultrastar He(6) also sports optimized electronics for lower power consumption at idle and in operation as well as packing seven disks into a 3.5-inch form factor. It's also lighter than a standard five disk 3.5-inch drive at 50 grams, so if you are weighing your storage by the pound or kilogram, it's a win there as well.

Hermitically sealed drives also play into the new wave of liquid cooling for better operating temperatures with densely packed racks. Many traditional drives are open to the atmosphere – putting an open drive into a liquid is a prescription for disaster, since the liquid would fill up the drive and gum up everything.

Cost of the Ultrastar He(6) is expected to be competitive on a per-TB basis with other drives, but at a much lower total operating cost due to lower power consumption and cooling requirements.   I'm interested to see if hardware production costs hold over time, since helium is used in a number of high-tech applications, including cooling the magnets in MRI scanners, arc welding, and pressurization and purging systems. Efforts to commercialize the U.S. production of helium by shutting down the National Helium Reserve have been bogged down in political wrangling, so the price of the gas could go up. On the other hand, helium is obtained by sifting it off of natural gas production – a booming business in the Northeast.  

Edited by Alisen Downey

Contributing Editor

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