Helium-powered hard drive lifts storage capacity to new heights

HGST released a helium-powered hard drive that it claims has 50 percent more storage and uses 23 percent less power – all on a 3.5-inch device. Why Netflix is cheered by the new helium drives.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters/File
A visitor uses his mobile phone as he walks past the Microsoft booth with a logo for cloud computing software at a CeBit computer fair in Hanover.

The data cloud just got a little bigger, faster, and cheaper.

And we owe it all an element normally associated with floating objects at a child's birthday party.

Japanese data storage company Hitachi has pioneered a way to use helium to make data on disk drives a little more compact. Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, or HGST, released the Ultra He6 on Monday, a disk drive that uses light-density helium to cut down on friction, which makes for a more efficient use of space and energy. This 3.5-inch drive claims to be the lightest, fastest, and largest-capacity drive of its size, which could be welcome news to tech companies looking to store massive amounts of data uploaded every day.

Helium is 14 percent less dense than air, which allows space for more interior hardware and energy efficiency. By using helium instead of air inside the device, HGST offers seven storage platters, instead of the usual five, and creates less drag on spinning disks, which cuts down on friction. In other words, the drive is quieter and runs four to five degrees cooler. According to HGST this also offers 50 percent more capacity than disk drives before, is 38 percent lighter and uses 23 percent less power.

All in all, this leads to a big increase in storage ability. The Ultra He6 offers six terabytes of storage, while the previous largest capacity Ultrastar drive only held four terabytes. 

This is big news for websites such as Netflix, who streams billions of hours of video to more than 40 million customers. The site will use the new Ultra He6, and Neflix's director of content delivery architecture David Fullagar says the combination of high storage capacity and power efficiency will be welcome.

“As part of our efforts to optimize the delivery ecosystem for Netflix and our Internet Service Provider partners, we strive to build better and better streaming appliances,” Mr. Fullager says in a statement. “The high storage density and lower power usage of the Ultrastar He6 hard drives allow us to continue with that goal, and create a great customer experience.”

Other companies that HGST says it has been working with include HP, CERN, and Huawei Unified Storage, as well as large social media and search companies.

HGST did not release a price for the device, as currently the Ultra He6 is primarily being sold to server and storage array manufacturers. But the daily influx of new apps, search engines, and social networks, data creation is at an all-time high: An infographic from Domo shows that every 60 seconds, Instagram users upload 3,600 new photos, Twitter users send more than 100,000 tweets, and Wordpress users publish 347 new blog posts.   

As helium technology becomes more widespread and Internet-users find they need to store data more efficiently, perhaps helium could be coming to a disk drive near you.

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