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Western Digital Boosts Hard Drive Capacity With Helium

Microsoft SkyDrive Vs. Dropbox, Google: Hands-On
Microsoft SkyDrive Vs. Dropbox, Google: Hands-On

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On Thursday, HGST announced a new helium-filled HDD platform, expected to hit the market in 2013, that boosts storage capacity while consuming less energy. In a statement, the company--which was formerly called Hitachi Global Storage Technologies until Western Digital acquired it in March--said the new design should "significantly [reduce] total cost of ownership."

The new storage products are built around sealed drive enclosures that have been filled with helium, which is one-seventh as dense as regular air. HGST claims the new technology exerts less force on the drive's spinning disks, thereby diminishing the mechanical power required by 23%.

The design also allows components to be arranged more closely to one another, meaning that Western Digital's new HDDs can fit seven platters--up from the current standard of five--into a typical 3.5-inch form factor. The resulting increase in storage capacity makes the energy savings even more dramatic; HGST claims that energy consumption is 45% improved on a watts-per-terabyte basis. The company also stated new products will "emit less acoustic noise" than current models.

[ Read Bridging Hot And Cold Cloud Storage. ]

John Rydning, IDC's research VP for hard disk drives, said in a phone interview that the helium-filled design caters to a "market hungry for capacity." He stated that data centers will be interested, highlighting "cold storage" as an opportunity. When asked about current archival options, which obviously do not employ the new tech, he said he could not speculate about which hardware offerings will be purchased by given companies. Even so, he said services such as Amazon Glacier would be "most suitable for these types of drives."

Rydning also mentioned potential big data applications. Information that is being actively analyzed, he said, is probably being housed on SSDs, which are faster. But if a company needs to store "large sets of unstructured data in a repository" before moving the content to a speedier drive for number-crunching, HGST's new products could fill that need.

The technology, he said, has been around the industry for over 10 years, but the challenge has always been, "How do you keep helium inside the drive, [without] leaking out?" He remarked that the challenge was never urgent in the past, as there was "always another solution," but that the helium breakthrough is welcome because drive-makers have struggled recently to further expand capacity. "It looks like Western Digital has finally figured out the process to do it in high volume with a device customers can rely on," he said.

Gartner analyst Andrew Neff said in an interview that there are needs for different types of storage: "Stuff you need right away, and stuff that's in the back drawer, that you know is there and that you can get if you need it." He agreed that cold-storage applications are among the needs HGST's new products could address.

Neff said the new tech is a triumph "if it works like [HGST] says it does," noting that Western Digital usually delivers on its promises. He cited availability as one of the the biggest current unknowns. "It's an interesting opportunity to address a market that's not currently served," he said, "but the key will be execution."

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