2013: Helium Drives Cloud Storage

Helium technology allows much more of your precious data to be stored cheaply in the “cloud”

Humans create huge amounts of digital data. Every photo or video you take is literally Megabyte of data. Some of this data is stored locally in your cellphone or laptop, but much of it gets shared with friends through messaging or social media. In this case, the company (Facebook, YouTube, WeChat, etc.) stores your content in their own massive Database. The term Cloud refers to the world-wide entirety of all this data storage and data processing. The cloud’s hardware resides in numerous massive power-hungry buildings often built near large rivers that can provide cheap hydroelectric power and cooling water.

Within these buildings there are millions of individual storage devices. Most of the data gets stored on hard disk drives, HDDs. These drives record the data magnetically on the surface of rotating disks. To store the most data, the drives record the largest possible number of data bits per square inch of disk and then also pack as many disks as possible into the formfactor.

Adding more disks is a mechanical design challenge, but worse than that, the power consumption goes up and the HDD gets too hot. Also, because the disks and arms have to be made thinner, the internal flow-induced vibrations are worse and this makes it more difficult to follow the tracks that contain the data.

Filling the drive with Helium instead of air addresses both of these problems. The density of Helium is 1/7th that of air. This greatly reduces the power consumed and heat generated and also improves track-following. Helium drives also operate more quietly, a fact appreciated by customers. The problem with Helium is how to get it to stay inside the drive! Helium has been called the ultimate escape artist. The Helium atom is the smallest of all atoms. It moves around very fast and is very ‘slippery’ (doesn’t stick to anything). Helium diffuses readily through most materials (Helium party balloons have to be metallized to slow down the leakage).

Efforts to make Helium drives date back to the 1970s and earlier. But lasting success was not achieved until 2013 when HGST (now Western Digital) finally shipped the Ultrastar® He6, a 3.5- inch, 7200 rpm drive offering 6 TeraBytes capacity. This drive packed seven disks (increased from five) into the standard 1-inch height. This number increased to 8-disks (Ultrastar He12) in April 2017 and then to 9-disks (Toshiba MG07ACA) in March 2018. Disk thickness dropped from 1.27 mm to 0.635 mm. As of March 2020, Helium is used in all high-capacity drives for data centers. These come from all of the three remaining HDD manufacturers (Western Digital, Seagate, and Toshiba)

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