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5.6TB helium disks could balloon, lift WD onto enterprise throne

So says a number-cruncher, but is it all hot air?

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Western Digital could topple Seagate as the king of enterprise disk shipments thanks to its helium drives, according to analysts IHS. The technology is being developed by WD's subsidiary Hitachi GST.

Read-write heads and spinning magnetic platters in hard drives filled with helium experience less drag rather those in devices containing clean air, and therefore consume up to 23 per cent less power according to Hitachi GST.

Helium, which is less dense than air and the second lightest element in the known universe, also conducts heat better than air which will improve cooling and lengthen the lifetime of a drive. Also, up to seven platters could be put inside such a drive instead of the maximum of five seen today.

A 4TB five-platter drive would become a 5.6TB drive using the same 800GB/platter areal density technology. So Hitachi GST can optimise helium drives for low-power consumption and high-capacity or a mix of the two - and give Seagate a right shoeing.

IHS storage systems analyst Fang Zhang said: "Helium hard drives could propel Western Digital to the top enterprise drive spot, dethroning Seagate in the process.”

Zhang reckons helium-filled drives could increase drive capacity before next-generation data storage technologies - such as heat-assisted magnetic recording - hit the market. Her projections show the market for helium 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.

There's the rub. Will they come down? We're told there's a global shortage of the noble inert gas - the second most abundant in existence to the best of mankind's knowledge - but this is partly due to the US's handling of its reserves.

And the IHS speculation assumes the seven-platter helium-filled monsters still fit in standard 3.5-inch drive bays.

What could Seagate do in response to a gassy invasion of the enterprise data centre and storage array market? One response would be to add flash to its enterprise drives and turn them into go-faster hybrids. Hitachi GST could do the same, though, and then we would have helium gas-filled hybrids. It's going to be an interesting couple of years as these technology permutations are played out. ®

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