Helium-Filled Hard Drives Could Lift Western Digital in Enterprise Market

100 Million Helium-Filled HDDs to Be Shipped in 2016

by Anton Shilov
01/03/2013 | 07:34 PM

Western Digital Corp.’s upcoming line of high-efficiency and super-capacity helium-filled hard disk drives (HDD) could elevate the company to the top of the enterprise HDD space, according to IHS iSuppli, a leading market tracker.

WD to Gain Presence on Enterprise HDD Market


A perennial runner-up in the enterprise HDD market, Western Digital continued to hold the No. 2 spot during the third quarter of 2012, the latest period for which figures are available. Western Digital had a 45% share of shipments, compared to Seagate Technology’s 48%. Western Digital’s portion of the market had been steadily increasing in the last few quarters as it assiduously courted the enterprise trade, which demands higher-performance hard disk drives than HDDs for the consumer market.

The enterprise HDD rankings could change, however, after helium HDDs are introduced by WD's HGST division into the market, an event projected to occur in the final quarter of 2013.

“Helium HDDs could propel Western Digital to the top enterprise HDD spot, dethroning Seagate in the process. Western Digital says helium-filled HDDs can reduce power consumption – an issue of concern for enterprise HDD users – by more than 20%. Helium-filled HDDs can advance drive capacity by another 25 to 50%, without increasing platter density or drive thickness,” said Fang Zhang, analyst for storage systems at IHS.

Helium Opens New Doors for HDD Industry

Current enterprise-class drives using perpendicular magnetic recording technology support up to 4TB in capacity since they can only include four 1TB platters. Helium can extend that to 5TB or even 6TB. The weight or thickness of current HDD products can also be reduced by approximately 30% by stacking platters closer together.

The density of helium is one-seventh that of air, which means dramatically less drag force acting on the spinning disk stack inside hard disk drives so that mechanical power into the motor is substantially reduced. The lower helium density also means that the fluid flow forces buffeting the disks and the arms, which position the heads over the data tracks, are substantially reduced allowing for disks to be placed closer together (i.e., seven disks in the same enclosure) and to place data tracks closer together (i.e., allowing continued scaling in data density). The lower shear forces and more efficient thermal conduction of helium also mean the drive will run cooler and will emit less acoustic noise.

Other HDD manufacturers – Seagate and Toshiba – could also develop their own scaling technologies to compete with helium filled offerings. In fact, Seagate has been exploring sealed drives tech for years now. A potential obstacle to large-scale production is cost, owing to the complexity of the manufacturing process. But costs could come down with the continued involvement of major HDD and component manufacturers.

Helium-filled drives are projected to create new opportunities for the HDD industry by increasing drive capacity before next-generation technologies, like heat-assisted magnetic recording, become available.

Projections show the market for helium-filled drives will climb from virtually zero in 2012 to more than 100 million units in 2016, especially if the high costs of production are brought down.