Ingredient for innovation – Helium

By: Clint Ludeman, Product Line Manager, Capacity Enterprise HDD and Vivek Tyagi, Director for India business development, SanDisk brand Commercial sales and Support at Western Digital Corporation

The world today is highly connected; every day a new and innovative app or service is introduced in the market that enables us to connect with the rest of the world better than before. You can plan a trip to Leh, get the whole trip documented and shared with all your friends through your Instagram, Facebook and now even your WhatsApp story. Today, not only can we share our own experiences but also follow the ones of our favourite influencers.

What it takes to make a Breakthrough

It requires a lot of things to work in sync for a person to make the impossible possible. Take for instance, climbing the Mt. Everest, the first ever attempts were made way back in the year 1922 and since then it took close to 30 years for the first summit in 1953 by Hillary and Tenzing. In the current times with technological developments in GPS, cold weather gears and accurate weather forecasting it has become possible to go on hundreds of adventures in just a year alone.

The amount of investment put into making a breakthrough is often not remembered over time. One of the most accurate examples for this could be a helium filled hard drive. Quite similar to climbing an Everest where the high altitudes and lack of oxygen can make it deadly and dangerous, the hard drive would also not be able to survive without air. This is because the read/write heads inside a hard drive actually fly over the disk surface on what we call an “air-bearing”.

The air prevents the heads from crashing into the disk; however the challenge with air is that it creates turbulence. This raised the need for a less dense element; Hydrogen the least dense element won’t work as its inflammable nature makes it a very bad option. The second lightest and the second most abundant element in the universe is Helium. As Helium is inert and is 1/7th the density of air, replacing air with helium in a hard drive would in turn reduce turbulence inside the drive.

The Helium Advantage

Helium comes with various advantages that deliver great benefits to end-users:

  • Squeezed tracks = more data tracks per disk = more data per HDD.
  • Thinner disks = more disks (5 disks are now 8 disks) = more data per HDD.
  • Thinner disks require less power to spin.
  • Helium creates less drag, requiring less power to spin the disks.
  • Less drag = less noise. (Helium drives are less annoying to listen to!)
  • Sealed drives keep helium in and keep contaminants out.

Keeping Helium In

Historically helium was used by HDD manufacturers while writing the delicate servo code. The servo code enables the drive to store the data on the blank disk and needs to be extremely accurate. This accuracy in servo writing would be provided by helium, however once the code has been written the helium would get replaced by air. You may wonder why that is? The reason is simple; even though helium’s small size is beneficial for servo writing it’s difficult to seal this helium within the drive. However, over the years a number of storage giants have managed to solve this mystery and launched HDDs that are helium filled. By trapping of microscopic helium particles, not only did they prevent the helium from getting leaked but also kept other contaminants out, improving the reliability of these drives.

Rise Above the Rest

Today, public cloud service providers offer inexpensive storage and a world-wide footprint to their consumers. This means, a startup can deploy a new app without worrying about building a data center. The low cost of storage enables them to launch new applications and compete with established firms almost instantly.

A Recipe for Innovation

The perfect recipe for innovation combines massive storage mixed well with a dab of compute, and then filled with a great idea.

Some might assume that storage is nothing more than a simple ingredient, but it is a crucial component that enables one to share their experiences with the world. When consumers share pictures on social media, or upload a video, they will be aware that it is helium and high capacity storage that has made it possible for them to do it seamlessly.

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