Helium hard drives to become mainstream says HGST

A helium hard drive immersed in water.
A helium hard drive immersed in water.

After Seagate, we caught up – twice – with HGST, a WD company, to get an update on their plans. The HDD maker has announced that it wants to push helium into hard disk drives as fast as possible. It released its first helium-based hard disk drives under the Ultrastar brand back in November 2013 and had shipped more than one million unit by February 2015.

What looked like a cautious approach was down to the fact that HGST wanted to test the waters according to Nigel Edwards, VP EMEA Sales & Channel Marketing at HGST.

They must have been pleased with the reliability and sales figures since they raised the MTBF of the drive to 2.5M hours, well beyond the industry average for enterprise hard disk drives.

The demand for helium was spurred by Hyperscale clients, with Netflix, HP and Huawei being some of those who have given helium their seals of approval, embracing the technology as rapidly as possible. While Seagate has dismissed helium as a one-trick horse, it gives HGST a welcome cushion.

The technology allows for more platters to be packed in the same enclosure (7 rather than 5), and it also reduces vibration, plus it reduces power consumption and dissipation, which has a positive, domino effect on TCO.

This creates a totally hermetic drive as well, which eliminates contamination concerns and produces a storage device that can be immersed in almost any liquid.

Cheaper helium drives coming

As HGST ramps up volume, prices are likely to go down and the company is betting on this to allow it to achieve "leading $/TB", an all-important metric for the bean counters at Hyperscale companies.

The current He-based HDD family is a second-generation one and achieved 10TB by using a combination of SMR and Helioseal, which HGST calls "complementary". The transition from PMR to SMR, Edwards told me, was slower than expected but he didn't elaborate on what the issues were.

The drive uses seven platters to achieve that capacity; Seagate said in 2014 that it will sell a 10TB drive in 2015 with six 1.67TB platters.

The third-generation drive family, which is expected to be launched next year, will mark the end of so-called in-Air hard disk drives with helium-based models being ubiquitous.

Spinning hard disk drives are only part of the story though, as HGST is also focusing on SSD with Edwards confirming that NVMe will become the standard interface for solid state drives.

Still in the Flash game

The company's flagship SSD, the Ultrastar SN100, was announced last year and uses Toshiba's 19nm MLC NAND flash to reach capacities of up to 3.2TB. HGST also has a strategic partnership with Intel for its SAS-based solid state drives and like Toshiba's OCZ, HGST is likely to find, in the Santa Clara-based company, a formidable "co-opetitor".

Seagate, its competitor, uses Samsung technology for its enterprise SSD solution with Samsung Electronics being another major player in the market. As an anecdote, the Korean company sold its hard drive business to Seagate a few years ago.

We moved on to the relationship between HGST and WD; assuming that there's no merger in a foreseeable future, Edwards sees WD's role cementing around components while HGST would be focusing more on the upper end of the market and enterprise solutions.

"That represents a massive potential," he said, "with cloud infrastructure and data warehousing". The company has been active in the acquisition game, buying object storage software company, Amplidata, earlier this month, and Skyera before that.

"These acquisitions allowed us to move up the stack", he told me before adding that HGST is reviewing potential opportunities, with more to come. And in terms of the future, as with Seagate, he confirmed that inline and deduplication technologies are already being explored in the R&D labs with software being the key differentiator HGST has identified.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.