back to article Helium-filled disks lift off: You can't keep these 6TB beasts down

WD subsidiary HGST's first helium-filled drive goes on sale today: the 6TB Ultrastar He6, which is the highest capacity 3.5-inch drive available. Instead of the platters spinning inside an air-filled enclosure they rotate inside one filled with helium gas, 14 per cent of the density of air. This has a much lower level of …


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  1. phil dude


    I would be very interested from a technical point of view how they keep the helium in! Are the cases welded shut?


    1. MacroRodent Silver badge

      Re: leaks....

      Why welding? Is helium so magic there is no gasket that can contain it?

      I would imagine the main change from normal drives is sealing all mechanics to the "helium side". No drive axles coming through, no pressure equalization vents (so the case has to be sturdier than usual). This also has the benefit that the whole unit can be dipped into a cooling fluid.

      1. Linker3000

        Re: leaks....

        Helium is a PITA to contain as its molecules are so small they sneak past and through many gasket materials.

        Maybe there's a new line for Halfords here - as well as regassing aircon systems they could now do hard drive units.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

          1. Michael Dunn

            Re: leaks....

            Graham's Law: The lower the vapour density, the faster a gas will diffuse.

            This is not really new. I recall working at ICL when they were producing "New Range". One of their tech triumphs was a 100Meg Disc drive with the actual platter/head chamber filled with pressurised Helium.

            They were the size of a fridge-freezer.

            Made a change from the old ED30's 30Meg drives the size of a washing machine, with replaceable "Cake-cover" 14-plate disk packs, and the heads driven by hydraulics!

    2. phil dude

      Re: leaks....

      I know some cryo folks who make deuterium bullets who have given background on what a pain this is...

      In my personal experience, replacing N ,O is a good idea anyway. In my AFM experiments we use pure N to get rid of the of the moisture in the air.

      I don't want to buy into the marketing bilge, but it may be possible that these drives may not fail as often?

      Less opportunities for rust? Microbes? Dust? Oh, and the speed of sound is ~3x normal air....

      Now, how long will it take to check this drive....?


      1. Vociferous

        Re: leaks....

        > the speed of sound is ~3x normal air

        Oh, interesting point, hadn't thought of that. Is the sound barrier a problem for harddisks? A quick back-of-the-hand calculation suggests rotation speed in a 7200 rpm HD should be in the region 20-25 m/s, a far cry from the speed of sound (343 m/s), but I may be mistaken.

    3. JamesTQuirk

      Re: leaks....

      I am big fan of "Spinning Rust" but it is mechanical, I still have ST506, MFM, Xt/At drive mechanisms here, but surely SSD are a body blow to these big drives, as more big drives will become SSD, expect easier to seal, and useable in Space ....

      I just bought a Seagate 4TB drive, but the Samsung A840 512GB SSD is still my new favourite ...

      1. Michael Habel Silver badge

        Re: leaks....

        Your SSD (500Gb Samsung) Retails along the lines of nearly 300.00€

        Any other spinning rust that in theory will last ya till time perpetuity (i.e. The limited number of NAND Flash R/W Cycles) @ 500Gb will only set ya back a cool (Lets just round it up call it) 40.00€ then shall we?

        This is why SSD fails so hard... The Prices are just to damned HIGH!

        1. dan1980

          Re: leaks....

          @Michael Habel - "This is why SSD fails so hard... The prices are just too damned HIGH!

          SSDs are not, objectively, more expensive. In Australia, I can get a 256MB SSD for $250. For the same price I can get a 2TB SATA drive.

          The SSD is not more expensive than the SATA drive; both are $250 (AUD). What you are referring to is $/MB and, in that regard, SSDs ($1/MB) are indeed a poor choice compared to standard SATA ($0.10/MB).

          However, capacity, while always in demand, is not always the most important metric. Running a database, you may instead require a certain speed, commonly (though not always 100% helpfully) measured in IOPS. If that is the case then $/IOPS becomes more relevant and SSD ($0.04/IOPS) starts looking like a steal compared to SATA ($3/IOPS). Even more so when you consider the power and extra SAN shelves you will need to deliver that throughput from SATA drives!

          Of course this difference is one reason why SSDs and conventional, spinning-platter drives are often deployed together. Few larger organisations use purely one or the other and it's even pretty common in home PCs and laptops to use an SSD boot/system disk backed by a SATA drive for bulk storage.

          Note that I have used some fairly generic numbers for all this as they're good enough to illustrate the point.

          1. Michael Habel Silver badge

            Re: leaks....

            Remind me again Math isn't quite my strong suit but IIRC 256Gb =/= 2Tb.

            256Gigabytes vs 2,048 Gigabytes a net lose of 1,792 Gigabytes Of storage that you could've had for your $250.00(AUD).

            So tell me again how much a Spinning Rusty Platter @256Gb's sets ya back! This should be your One true Benchmark, and not some top-of-the-line HDD...


            Bottom line is Joe blow, with Windows 7 Home Premium could care less about running Databases, While it may well truly faster then conventional Tech. It hardly makes it better, or to the benefit of everyone, mainstream.

  2. Annihilator

    Drive noises

    Is the whine from the disk a few kHz higher than normal?

    Does "talking like Donald Duck" now appear as one of the troubleshooting steps for signs of an imminently failing drive?

    1. Christian Berger Silver badge

      Re: Drive noises

      Good question. I do not believe so.

      With your voice the pitch is determined by how fast your vocal chords swing which in turn seems to be determined my the density of the gas around it.

      In a harddisk the pitch is determined by the speed the platters rotate, this is controlled by electronics and doesn't change with outside conditions.

      1. phil dude

        Re: Drive noises

        I don't believe so. , where I got the Helium numbers....

        Essentially it will let high frequencies pass easier. A nice description for speech is here:


  3. TWB

    What about my mp3s?

    Won't they all come out squeaky and high pitched?

    1. FartingHippo

      Re: What about my mp3s?

      No. Nor will you have to tether your PC it to the ground to stop it floating away.

      1. Vector

        Re: What about my mp3s?

        "Nor will you have to tether your PC it to the ground to stop it floating away."

        True, but a similar thought did occur to me when they mentioned it was lighter.

  4. CAPS LOCK Silver badge

    Well, this is all very clever and all that, but what about bringing back...

    ... the Quantum Bigfoot. Nearly 50% bigger for the same number of platters.

    1. nanchatte

      Re: Well, this is all very clever and all that, but what about bringing back...

      I have fond memories of my 4Gb Bigfoot... Just for a laugh, I wonder what capacity they could squeeze out of a 7 platter regular half height or perhaps 20 platter full height 5.25" Bigfoot...

      1. CAPS LOCK Silver badge

        Re: Well, this is all very clever and all that, but what about bringing back...

        "20 platter full height Bigfoot"

        NOW your talkin'.

        Kickstarter anyone?

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge

          Indeed, I'd like to see a 20-platter Bigfoot

          melt at 7200RPM, in a futile attempt to squeeze any semblance of performance out of it.

          * More platters means more area subject to friction with the enclosed gas (be it air, helium or whatever other concoction you may come up with.

          * Larger platters mean larger edge velocity (turbulence again, see above), unless you keep the spindle speed down.

          * More platters means more heads means more arms means the head positioning thingamajig has more mass. Which means your actuator has to scale up accordingly, taking way more power.

          * Larger and more platters means more loading on the spindle bearings, and any slop there will cause bigger excursions at the platter edges. Which the heads won't quite agree with, plus it will cause more turbulence, which again the heads won't agree with, and take more energy to overcome that friction.

    2. Haku

      Re: Well, this is all very clever and all that, but what about bringing back...

      I was clearing out my old computer equipment earlier this year and found my 6gb Bigfoot, I'd forgotten just how massive & heavy the thing was!

      It's rather amazing how quickly harddrive technology has developed, I got 4 WD Green drives for a NAS and doing initial tests on them (filling up drive and reading it all back to check data integrity & read/write speed) I had them just sitting flat on the desk, they barely got warm and were as quiet as a mouse, and all 4 drives running in the NAS make less noise/heat than a few year old 500gb drive I have.

  5. Jason Ozolins

    Maximum operating altitude?

    Seagate states that most of their drives are designed for a maximum operating altitude of 10,000 feet. If the seals on these helium-filled drives hold at altitudes higher than 10,000 feet, these drives could operate in places where most Seagate drives are not warranted to work. Good for folks in Bolivia, for instance...

  6. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

    Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

    ...or did the company abhor the idea?

    1. Gordan

      Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

      No, it wouldn't. Vacuum is not thermally conductive for convection, and the platter surfaces are cooled by the gas (air, helium, whatever) inside the drive. Helium is more thermally conductive than air in addition to being less dense, hence less drag and better cooling allow more densely packed platters.

      What really surprises me is the 5 year warranty on the model. This is normally reserved for the expensive enterprise grade drives. Does that mean the He6 will be substantially more expensive per TB than the air-filled 4TB model? Or is Hitachi offering the extra long warranty as a sweetener to help customers swallow the technology that hasn't been tested for long-term reliability yet?

      Either way, the size is just getting silly. The RAID rebuild times with drives like this are inevitably going to be waaaaay outside anything sensible.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

        "Either way, the size is just getting silly. The RAID rebuild times with drives like this are inevitably going to be waaaaay outside anything sensible."

        1: Raid6 - but that's only just sufficient for the task these days.

        2: ZFS RAIDz3 (Yay!) - which should be good up to about 100Tb drives.

        In general though - yes you're right. There's a reason larger SSDs are moving to RAIN structures internally.

        1. Gordan

          Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

          "2: ZFS RAIDz3 (Yay!) - which should be good up to about 100Tb drives."

          Yes and no. With 6TB disks based on unproven bleeding edge technology, I wouldn't want to push my vdev geometry past 4+3 in RAIDZ3. If you really meant 100Tb (as opposed to 100TB), I'd say you were overly optimistic.

      2. Conrad Rockenhaus

        Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

        Man, the RAID rebuild times will extend into the weeks at this point! I would think at some point the size versus versatility would outweigh itself.

      3. neilt0

        Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

        This is an Enterprise drive.

    2. Natalie Gritpants

      Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

      Yes, right up until the point you try to move the heads from the park position to the platters.

      1. handle

        Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

        Just to expand on Natalie Gritpants' comment: a fundamental principle of hard disk drives is that the heads float a tiny distance above the platters on a cushion of air (or helium). They are not like floppy disks where the heads rub against the surface - neither heads nor surface would last long if they did.

    3. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

      No. It's very hard to hold a vacuum. lots of things start to evaporate at very low pressures, including things that you thought were solid.

      For example in CRTs, you need a reactive element (called a getter) that reacts with an trace gasses in the tube as they are emitted from the various parts of the tube, just to keep the vacuum. Apart from the problem of it not staying a vacuum, you may also start to have problems with some of your components evaporating away causing failure.

      1. Immenseness

        Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better?

        No, because the heads are spring loaded and pressed against the spinning platter. The fact that they are shaped like mini aeroplane wings causes them to fly above the surface of the disk on a cushion of air (or helium in this case). If there is more vibration or shock than the air cushion can absorb, the head "crashes" into the surface of the disk and bits of the surface that are dislodged stick to it spoiling the air flow (both of that head and any others that the little bits of debris get wafted towards) which causes it to have less lift and so it hits again and again until it can fly no more, and that is a head crash.

        So there has to be something in there for the heads to fly in.

    4. Michael Dunn

      Re: Wouldn't a vacuum be better? Uncle Slacky


  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    less helium than a balloon

    birthday balloon, or one of those huge, multicolour balls of the world ballooning competition?


    given the reassurances come from the marketoids, I guess I know which one of them they meant.

    1. handle

      Re: less helium than a balloon

      It's a tiny amount of inert (non-poisonous) gas which is less dense than air so as soon as it escapes it will float away from you rather than suffocate you. If you're that paranoid you shouldn't allow an aerosol can in the house - that contains liquefied gas (i.e. there's a lot more of it) which is also inflammable and denser than air.

      1. A Known Coward

        Re: less helium than a balloon

        Helium is a finite resource, once it escapes it cannot be recovered or re-created (on Earth at least). Hence the 'paranoia' about the quantity being used. There have already been calls to ban Helium balloons to preserve stocks.

        1. Scott Pedigo

          Re: less helium than a balloon

          "Helium is a finite resource, once it escapes it cannot be recovered or re-created (on Earth at least)."

          Well, there is one way it can be created, but it's not practical, and collecting the fused Hydrogen atoms might prove to be a problem.

          1. The Axe

            Helium is a finite resource

            No its not. Helium is created as a product of radiation from Uranium deep in the earth. It's common to find it in natural gas because it collects the same way gas collectes.

            1. Cryo

              Re: Helium is a finite resource

              Helium is a finite resource just as natural gas is a finite resource. And aside from a small portion of natural gas deposits with elevated concentrations of Helium, it typically only appears in relatively trace amounts. Once it escapes from containment, it rises to the upper atmosphere and is lost into space. Creating Helium in a laboratory environment is prohibitively expensive for large-scale use. Sure, Helium might not become rare enough in the next couple decades to be an immediate issue, but eventually its price is bound to rise to a level that will impede its use for many scientific and industrial purposes.

        2. This post has been deleted by its author

          1. Chris Fox

            Re: less helium than a balloon

            Helium is cheap because the US govt is dumping all its reserves at knock-down price that has not changed since 1996, despite a massive increase in demand. This distorts the market. Given it's limited supply, and limited rate of capture, some estimate that the true market value of a helium party balloon should be close to $100. Once the US has no more helium to dump, expect the price to rise and availability to decrease dramatically. This proflicate use of artificially cheap helium will end with exorbitant running costs for MRI scanners, and anything else that involves superconducting magnets and very low temperatures. So expect many more undiagnosed brain tumors and the like, all for the sake of "privatising" this rare asset, and venting it off into space for a few seconds of amusement.

            1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

              Re: less helium than a balloon

              Once the US has no more helium to dump, expect the price to rise and availability to decrease dramatically.

              Ah, the sound of yet another government-fuelled bubble (helium filled this time) popping as the laws of economics reassert themselves. Good! Be advised that there will be whining about "exploitative capitalism" from clueless gasbags.

              Noam Chomsky: "There are supposed to be laws of economics. I can't understand them."

              James Ostrowski: "You are correct, Sir! If you stay away from economics and political theory,. I will stay away from linguistics."

              1. Jason Ozolins

                Re: less helium than a balloon

                Funny you should say "laws of economics" rather than "economic forces". Because, with the way that the various world economies have been going, it doesn't seem like we actually know the laws well enough yet - unless they are the sort of unfalsifiable laws where whatever happens, that's just what the laws said would happen. Funnier yet, there are psychological studies where students of economics prove to be less altruistic/fairness-minded, and more self-interested, than "ordinary" students in financial dealings... but supposedly the same laws of economics apply to both economists and lesser mortals.

                Sure, profit motive will draw private companies to fill the gap after some amount of price flapping and pain among industrial and scientific users of helium. But was it really necessary for the US Government to get out of the helium marketplace in some ideological panic, lurching around smashing stuff on the way out? Oh well, after the US Government shutdown last month, that would seem to be totally par for the course.

          2. tojb

            He isn't that cheap

            Helium isn't that cheap. Liquid He is the biggest annual budget item for our physics dept. Possibly we are paying for the cryo and transportation, but all the same.

            1. Steven Jones

              Re: He isn't that cheap

              "Helium isn't that cheap. Liquid He is the biggest annual budget item for our physics dept."

              Ahead of wages, ? I rather think that's unlikely.

  8. oddie

    now available today...

    and not available anywhere that I have checked.. does anyone know when the 'launch' will turn into 'can buy'? guessing the price will be around 300 quid for a while...

  9. older than dirt

    If I remeber right this was done 35+ years ago

    I'm pretty sure HP had a "fixed head disk" (128 disk heads in a fixed position) back in the late 70's that was also helium pressurized. I remember the tanks sitting next to the disk drive.

    The fixed heads were used for maximum speed for the OS, no "seek time".

    I was around back then. I can check my CE handbook tonite if no one else can find the reference.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: If I remeber right this was done 35+ years ago

      So how was that dinosaur in any way alike, exactly?

    2. Charles Manning

      aka rotating drum drive

      These were commonly used as first level swap storage.


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