Sep 13, 2012

Are helium filled hard drives really the HDDs of the future?

Western Digital is releasing helium filled hard drives, and claims that they are superior to conventional HDDs in that they (1) use less power, and (2) offer increased capacity. Is this just a marketing ploy, or is this really the future of HDDs?

Seems like the real deal to me, see this article.

Helium-filled hard drives will increase capacity and efficiency

"Western Digital’s recently acquired HGST (formerly Hitachi Global Storage Technologies) has announced plans to ship helium-filled hard drives next year. Replacing air-filled drives with helium has a number of benefits and is seen as a major win for disk technology that could go a long way in reducing energy costs for major cloud storage providers.

According to HGST, these new helium-filled drives reduce power consumption by around 23 percent which in turn helps to lower overall operating temperatures by 4°C (7°F). Furthermore, the manufacturer is now able to stuff two additional platters into a standard 3.5-inch drive. This should result in capacities approaching 6TB."


They may be.  There are certainly advantages to the helium filled drives.  Of course, there is the manufacturing challenge of making them and ensuring that they don't leak, but that is certainly doable. One thing that I am curious about is the helium supply, just like Chris mentioned in his answer.  It had been classified as a substance with national defense implications in the US, but it was decided that the US stockpile should be disposed of in 19XX, and this has resulted in periodic helium shortages and unstable prices.  I'm not sure if this situation has changed or not, but a reliable supply of helium is a potential production bottleneck in the future.    


Assuming that shortcomings can be overcome, the benefits should be able to override the increased cost in certain uses, such as the use in servers, for one example.  More efficient storage is always a welcome development.




Christopher Nerney
The potential benefits of helium-filled HDDs are compelling: They use 23% less power, offer greater capacity, and reportedly run cooler and quieter than HDDs filled with air (according to Western Digital subsidiary Hitachi Global Storage Technologies).

But cost and long-term availability are questions. Helium is a non-renewable resource, and supposedly the world's reserves are perilously low, in large part because the U.S. Congress in 1996 voted to sell off all of the nation's helium reserve by the year 2015, which is only three years away. So whereas an oversupply of helium since the 1996 vote led to cheap helium prices, the pending disappearance of the world's largest helium supply (located underground near Amarillo, Texas) may change that.

I'd say if the helium shortage is real, helium-filled HDDs are an interim technology, and not "the future" of HDDs.
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