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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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