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Lighter Than Air

November 4th, 2013 - 2:08 pm

What’s the next big thing in increasing hard drive capacities? That’s a tough one. We’re approaching the physical limits of storage density per platter, and you can only fit up to five platters into each enclosure. Until now:

Western Digital is going to announce something a little different and interesting in the world of enterprise hard drives, and you should probably pay attention to it. Starting today, it will begin shipping hard drives packed with helium — as in the inert gas that makes balloons float, makes people’s voices sound funny, and which happens to be the second-most-abundant element in the known universe, after hydrogen.

It turns out that the insides of hard drives are pretty violent places. There’s a lot of high-speed motion, what with the disk platters spinning at several thousand rotations per minute, and the head moving back and forth across its surface. If you’ve ever held your arm out the window of a fast-moving car, you get some sense of the problem.

All that drag from the air limits the number of disk platters that can be stacked inside a single drive. Right now, the standard calls for five platters inside a one-inch-high drive enclosure. Building a sealed drive that’s packed with helium eliminates that drag, and thus allowed for platters to be packed inside the enclosure more tightly. Where you once could fit only five platters, you can now fit seven. That means more storage capacity per drive. The first drive out of the chute has a capacity of six terabytes, versus four for conventional drives.

It also means a little less power consumption overall, the company says. Less drag means that the motor spinning the platters has to turn less, and the drive runs a little.

But will my music playing off one of these all sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks?

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All Comments   (8)
All Comments   (8)
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I'm waiting for them to be filled with hard vacuum.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
how long will these drives last? Helium is a "slippery molecule" and will leak out faster than most anything except Hydrogen.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Now, this is neat and all but...

... Why not just make Solid State Hard Drives? You know, that technology we already have that's faster, smoother and less damaging then platter hard drives? I mean, there's few reasons to use platter HDDs other then the fact that they're still cheaper, sitting at about $0.05 per GB where the SSDs are at about 0.59.

I mean, I suppose this is attempting to address the one strength of standard platter HDD vs. SSD, which is catastrophic failure - a problem of SSD devices as they are just a flash-based memory, so any loss is almost always total loss but... that's literally getting better every generation by a noticeable amount.

I don't know. Just seems like such an odd leap considering.

This just smells like another Zip Drive/Betamax thing all over again.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Enterprise" HDD production in 2012: 66.4 exabytes.
"Enterprise" Flash production in 2012: 1.8 exabytes.

To replace all the spinning media produced this year with flash media, you'd need something like 50 more NAND fabrication plants. At 10+ billion dollars and 2-3 years build time, each. There's not enough money to be made in HDDs to make a half-trillion dollar investment worthwhile. (That's just the cost to make the manufacturing facilities... not to actually produce any actual flash chips or build drives.)

And with global production of storage going up 73% per year, by the time you've spend 2 or 3 years building those fabs, you've only got a quarter of what you need for the new market size.

We'll be using magnetic media to store our data for years and years and years and years to come. Maybe longer.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Cost, capacity, form factor, reliability and speed.

At the extreme high end, ~4TB of PCI flash can do ~4GB/s for the bargain price of $30,000.

Comparatively, my video editing rig has a bunch of 4TB striped SAS drives that are much faster and cost slightly more than a tenth of that.

NAND may well be the way storage goes, certainly in the consumer market anyway, but don't expect it for another 5-10 years or so.

Until then, hybrid drives using a relatively small amount of NAND to speed up a conventional drive seems to be the way the wind is blowing, at least in single disk applications.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Is this impacted in any way by the Helium "strategic reserve" crisis? I don't know the economics of the situation. Will they get their supply elsewhere?
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
A bill was recently passed to deal with the Helium reserve issue-- which is yet another example of general stupidity in government.

It'll get somewhat more expensive, but there's plenty to meet demand.

It's actually easier to buy large quantities of it than smaller-- the shortage REALLY screwed us small volume fabricators who use it to weld exotic metals.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"But will my music playing off one of these all sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks?"

Only if you play the 45 at 78 rpm...
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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