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HGST Sells 1 Million Helium HDDs And Sets Record-Breaking MTBF Rating (Updated)

By - Source: HGST

HGST has shipped more than one million helium drives while achieving a new industry-leading reliability milestone with a field-proven MTBF of 2.5 million hours. HGST originally announced that all of its new enterprise capacity HDDs would leverage HelioSeal technology at its 2014 Press & Industry Analyst Briefing. The rapid uptake and enhanced reliability of the first generation products has led HGST to move to helium-based drives for all future capacity-based products. The unique HelioSeal platform addresses the three major pain-points in the data center: power, cooling and space.

Typical air-based drive designs are limited to five platters due to air-induced turbulence and vibration, and any reduction in platter thickness will cause the platters to fly apart. By filling the drive with helium, which has 1/7th the density of air, HGST's HelioSeal architecture reduces air turbulence (and thus head flutter), vibration and drag. The HGST proprietary 7Stac design fits seven thinner platters into the same 1-inch Z-height found on a standard 3.5" form-factor HDD. The decreased vibration boosts reliability because it is less stressful on the internal components of the drive.

Reduced drag also lowers the energy required to spin the disks, which results in lower overall power consumption. Helium-based HDDs consume 23 percent less power than air-based drives, and the 8 TB He8 provides a 44 percent reduction in idle watts-per-TB metrics (in comparison to 6 TB air-based HDDs). The low idle power consumption is an attractive feature that reduces the cost of cold data storage, and low operating power rounds out the equation. In many cases, powering a drive over its lifespan costs more than the actual cost of acquiring the hardware. According to HGST, the power savings offered by helium HDDs will provide a lower TCO than competing products.

Other manufacturers, such as HGST's parent company WD, are reducing RPM to rein in power consumption. Reducing RPMs can lower performance, but the benefits of helium allow HGST to continue to offer power-efficient operation at 7,200 RPM. 

The increased platter count enables enhanced storage density, such as that found in the new 8 TB He8. Other manufacturers are using SMR (Shingled Magnetic Recording) to expand to 8 terabytes. SMR has performance penalties, and in contrast, the 7-platter HelioSeal design enables HGST to extend its capacity with standard PMR recording.

Low power consumption has the side benefit of reducing heat generation. Helium-based HDDs operate 4-5 degrees Celsius cooler than competing air-based drives, which increases reliability and lowers cooling costs. Reduced cooling-associated power costs and fewer drive failures improve the overall TCO calculation. Less heat generation also eases cooling requirements inside dense servers and enclosures.

Typical air-based HDDs need a breather hole to equalize pressure, which requires a small filter that blocks foreign particles. Filters can fail just like any other component, and since helium drives are sealed, they do not require filters. HGST has found that removing the filter increases reliability in open-air data centers and harsh environments that tend to have more dust and contaminants. Air-based HDDs also have a tightly defined humidity tolerance, which can be a weakness in open-air environments. Hermetically sealed HDDs are impervious to humidity, and are even a key component in new immersion-cooling designs.

HGST amassed 18 months’ worth of field data from large-scale deployments and combined the field data with hundreds of thousands of hours of its own internal testing. The encouraging results prompted HGST to expand the MTBF rating to 2.5 million hours, which is an industry first. In comparison, a standard desktop HDD is rated for 400,000-800,000 hours, and competing enterprise HDDs are only rated for 1.4 million hours.

MORE: Enterprise Storage: New Technologies and the Future of HDDs

Increasing Adoption

Over the years, several manufacturers have attempted to mass-produce helium-based HDDs. Many attempts leveraged fasteners and gaskets, which usually leak, and designs that did work proved too costly or inefficient for mass production. HGST employs a laser-welding process that hermetically seals the drive without fasteners. Thinner platters and a lack of fasteners reduce the overall weight by 38 percent per TB of storage.

Denser storage enclosures are becoming the norm in data centers, and increasing weight has become a concern. Data centers often have floor-loading limits due to building codes, particularly in metropolitan areas, which can hamstring dense deployment options in existing locations. For example, HGST's own Active Archive server packs 98 drives into a 4U rack. Replacing drives, or entire enclosures, can become quite the chore when the enclosures each weigh several hundred pounds. In some cases, this can even be a safety concern.

Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) handle roughly 60 to 70 percent of the world's data, and HGST began the first generation rollout with select U.S. hyperscale CSPs to prove out the value of helium technology. Hyperscale operators are tasked with accommodating a 60 to 70 percent increase in data per year within a relatively flat IT budget, and they tend to purchase drives direct from manufacturers. Additionally, CSPs are not as concerned with rigid dual sourcing requirements; instead, they focus on attaining the lowest possible TCO.

Some OEMs are still conservative and prefer the ability to dual source products. Compelling TCO advantages, and the need to compete with agile CSPs and ODMs, have led OEMs to qualify helium drives in spite of the single source. Every major OEM is already in qualifications with the He8, and most will be ramping in the second quarter. HGST is also expanding the addressable market by integrating with CSPs in Europe and China.

First-generation He6 HDDs feature a higher price point than competing solutions. Even with the long-term TCO reduction, many balked at the higher prices, instead choosing to stay with conventional air-based HDDs. HGST is expanding production with the He8 to 3-5 times the current output, which will help it come down the cost curve as it reaps the fruits of high-volume production.

HGST is quickly ramping the number of helium drives it produces, and expects the product mix to reach 50 percent in 2017. The HelioSeal platform will also extend the viability of the 3.5" form factor for ten years or longer. Helium-based SMR HDDs are already shipping, and the HelioSeal architecture is forward compatible with other emerging technologies, such as TDMR and HAMR.

Brendan Collins, vice president of product marketing at HGST, said:

“Based on the patented HelioSeal technology, HGST’s Ultrastar Helium-filled drives are the only drives that improve data center TCO on virtually every level—from storage density, power and cooling costs, to reliability, capacity and more. All of these factors contribute to defining the true TCO of the data center. Having shipped more than one million drives, the rapid industry adoption of this revolutionary technology affirms our commitment to Helium as the foundation for all future scaling technologies. With a valued-based pricing strategy in place and manufacturing investments to promote the increased volumes, HGST is on an accelerated path to delivering higher capacities and better TCO into existing and future form factor designs.”

Some have opined that helium scarcity or pricing can affect the long-term prospects of helium HDDs. However, it actually requires less helium per HDD than a standard balloon, which costs pennies per drive. Even if costs were to increase drastically, which is unlikely due to HGST's geographically distributed long-term supply contracts, it would still account for an incredibly small portion of the overall Build of Materials (BOM).

HGST has answered many of the questions surrounding the HelioSeal platform with the first generation of products, and more helium-based products will head to mainstream applications with the second generation. Perhaps one of the biggest questions is whether or not WD will adopt this technique after clearing the regulatory hurdles and the two companies integrate the respective product lines.  

HGST is already shipping its He6 and He8 products in volume, and select customers are now sampling helium-infused 10 TB SMR drives. The 10 TB drives are scheduled for general availability in the second half of 2015. In the meantime, look to these pages soon for a pending review of the 8 TB He8. 

Update, 3/23/15, 3:46pm: HGST reached out to clarify that performance-based models, such as the 10K and 15K products, will continue to utilize an air-based architecture.