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HGST Inc. launches first helium drive

HGST delivers its long-awaited helium drive, using the light gas to put seven platters and 6 TB of capacity in one drive and reduce power consumption.

HGST Inc., a subsidiary of Western Digital Corp., today launched its first helium-filled hard disk drive, the 6 TB Ultrastar He6.

The new drives consist of disk platters sealed inside a hermetic chamber filled with helium instead of air. The breakthrough storage technology allows manufacturers to increase capacity by stacking more disk platters inside a 3.5-inch form factor while significantly reducing power consumption.

The HGST Ultrastar He6 helium drive contains seven disk platters in a 1 inch-high drive. Current standard air-filled disk drives contain five platters and a maximum of 4 TB. Helium is one-seventh the density of air, so there is less turbulence caused by disk and heads that move to read and write data. HGST claims helium drives will reduce power consumption on average by 23%.

"It has become more difficult for most hard disk drive customers and storage array vendors to increase storage capacity per disk drive because when the disk is spinning, it creates wind turbulence and destabilizes the heads over the disk surface," said John Rydning, research vice president for hard disk drives and semiconductors at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. "We have seen a slowdown in the industry's ability to double the capacity. Storage now doubles every two to three years rather than every 18 months. So this is an important announcement for the industry."

Hard drive vendors have been working on this technology for at least 10 years, but they struggled to find a way to contain the helium within the disk drive. HGST succeeded with its proprietary HelioSeal technology, which hermetically seals the odorless, inert gaseous element in the drives.

As the demand for higher-capacity drives and customers' need to lower power and cooling costs grew, the use of air made it more difficult for manufacturers to stack more disk platters in a hard drive.

"At some point, they get so close, and the turbulence affects the reliability to read and write," said Brendan Collins, HGST's vice president of product marketing. "When we write those tracks closer and closer, at some point they get too close, and it creates turbulence and affects the reliability to read and write to the tracks."

Collins said the other benefit of the helium-based hard drives is that they're more resistant to damage.

"It's more robust because it's hermetically sealed," he said. "That means helium can't get out and liquid can't get in."

The new 6 TB Ultrastar He6 is a 7,200 rpm drive that supports 6 Gbps SAS and SATA interfaces. Its cache handles 64 MB, and it has a rating of 2 million mean time between failures. Collins said manufacturers are currently testing the drives, and he expects storage vendors to begin selling them in arrays in the first quarter of 2014.

"This is going to extend the life of a 3.5-inch form factor by 10 years," Collins said of the capacity and power gains of the helium drives.

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