Helium-filled Hard Drives Could Lift Western Digital Above Competition

New Delhi, India, January 05, 2013: A perennial runner-up in the enterprise HDD market, Western Digital—which recently merged with Hitachi GST—continued to hold the No. 2 spot during the third quarter of 2012, the latest period for which figures are available. Western Digital had a 45 percent share of shipments, compared to Seagate Technology’s 48 percent, as shown in the attached figure. Western Digital’s portion of the market had been steadily increasing in the last few quarters as it assiduously courted the enterprise trade, which demands higher-performance hard disk drives than HDDs for the consumer market. The enterprise HDD rankings could change, however, after helium HDDs are introduced into the market, an event projected to occur in the final quarter of 2013. Fang Zhang, Analyst for storage systems at IHS, said, “Helium HDDs could propel Western Digital to the top enterprise HDD spot, dethroning Seagate in the process. Western Digital says helium-filled HDDs can reduce power consumption—an issue of concern for enterprise HDD users—by more than 20 percent. And helium-filled HDDs can advance drive capacity by another 25 to 50 percent, without increasing platter density or drive thickness.”

Helium inflates HDD capacity

Current drives using perpendicular magnetic recording technology support up to 4 terabytes in capacity. Helium can extend that to 5 or even 6 terabytes. The weight or thickness of current HDD products can also be reduced by approximately 30 percent by stacking platters closer together. The magic element here is helium, which is lighter than air and has a lower molecular weight. Given its nonreactive nature and lower density, helium is thought to improve the speed of the HDD tracking arm, enhance drive performance through faster spinning of the drive, and eliminate mechanical issues like noise, vibration and turbulence. A better conductor of heat than air, helium also helps produce a more uniform temperature on the platter to raise quality, and protects the coating of the hard disk head and disk to lengthen the life of the drive. Such qualifications make helium-filled HDDs eminently suitable for storage-hungry systems such as enterprise servers and datacenters. Western Digital is likely to market a 5-terabyte version to these target markets, IHS believes.

Ballooning technology

Other HDD manufacturers—like archrival Seagate as well as Toshiba, the third remaining HDD player after Western Digital acquired Hitachi—could also develop their own scaling technologies to compete with helium filled offerings. However, technological difficulties and patent issues could present challenges and delay submissions from Western Digital’s rivals. A potential obstacle to large-scale production is cost, owing to the complexity of the manufacturing process. But costs could come down with the continued involvement of major HDD and component manufacturers. Helium-filled drives are projected to create new opportunities for the HDD industry by increasing drive capacity before next-generation technologies, like heat-assisted magnetic recording, become available. Projections show the market for helium-filled 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.

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