Western Digital recently announced that it had sold 15 million helium-filled hard drives, indicating that sales of such HDDs are accelerating. Since the launch of the HGST HelioSeal platform about 3.5 years ago, it has enabled HGST to make a number of technological improvements to its hard drives in terms of their capacities. It is noteworthy that while Western Digital is expanding usage of helium, it has not announced plans to expand usage of shingled-magnetic recording (SMR).

HGST, a subsidiary of Western Digital, started volume shipments of its first-generation helium-filled Ultrastar He-series hard drives in November 2013. HGST sold about a million HelioSeal HDDs in the first 1.5 years on the market, but once numerous operators of large cloud datacenters qualified such drives, their sales started to accelerate. For example, HGST supplied 1.1 million of helium-filled HDDs in Q3 2015 — more than in their first six quarters on the market. Meanwhile back in October of last year, Western Digital said it had sold 10 million HelioSeal hard drives. As it appears from the recent comments made by the company, in just a couple of quarters it has managed to sell another five million helium HDDs with cumulative shipments of such drives topping 15 million units since late 2013.

“I am pleased to note that we have now shipped approximately 15 million helium hard drives cumulatively since the platform's launch four years ago,” said Michael D. Cordano, president of Western Digital, during a conference call with investors and analysts.

There are multiple reasons why sales of HelioSeal-based HDDs are accelerating. First, the demand for datacenter hard drives is growing, and operators have finally qualified helium-filled HDDs for new deployments. Second, with the systematic increase of drive capacities (a new capacity point is launched every 12 – 18 months), Western Digital can gradually increase shipments of helium-filled drives to existing and new deployments. Third, Western Digital is expanding usage of helium beyond datacenter-class drives to NAS and even consumer HDDs.

From technology standpoint, HelioSeal has made quite a bit of progress in the recent 3.5 years. Initially, it enabled HGST to place seven platters into a single 3.5” HDD and offer a 6 TB drive, which in turn had lower power consumption and higher performance than various competitors. Installation of seven platters into one drive required HGST to redesign some of the internal HDD components, and this is always a challenge. Moreover, late last year HGST introduced an even denser hard drive, the Ultrastar He12 with eight platters, which again required the company to redevelop internal architecture of the HDD.

When it comes to practical progress, the helium-filled Ultrastar drives doubled their capacity from 6 TB in Q4 2013 to 12 TB in Q1 2017. By contrast, conventional air-filled PMR-based drives have not yet made it past 8 TB, increasing their capacity by 33% from 6 TB in Q1 2014. Meanwhile, if we take the SMR-based Ultrastar He12 with 14 TB capacity into account, then the progress will seem quite impressive as well (a 75% increase from 8 TB in August 2013 to 14 TB in 2H 2017).

Speaking of SMR, it does not look like Western Digital is eager to share its plans regarding usage of the technology.

“Shingle [magnetic recording] has been a little bit more limited in terms of the applications because of some of the performance implications of that and that sort of thing,” said Stephen Milligan, CEO of Western Digital. “We feel comfortable with where we are at in terms of SMR transition and the applicability and the drives that we are providing to our customers.”

Unlike drive-managed SMR HDDs from Seagate, SMR HDDs from Western Digital should be managed by hosts and are therefore used only for active archive/deep-archive applications that can support it. This reduces their addressable market, but the company still sells plenty of them: 20 – 35% of data stored today belongs to the two aforementioned categories. Meanwhile, Seagate offers drive-managed SMR-based HDDs for both consumers and datacenters, something that Western Digital does not. For the time being at least, it looks like the company is not planning on disclosing any kind of roadmap for drive-managed SMR devices.

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Source: Western Digital

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  • Samus - Saturday, May 13, 2017 - link

    That HGST purchase really paid off. Good job WD. You haven't ruined your mergers (or purchased crappy companies like Maxtor) like Seagate traditionally has (and yeah I'm especially talking about Samsung and LSI)
  • StevoLincolnite - Sunday, May 14, 2017 - link

    I miss the Samsung Spinpoints. They were decently quick, reliable and cheap.
  • tamalero - Sunday, May 14, 2017 - link

    Agree, those Samsung drives always ran cold, had amazing reliability and were pretty cheap.
  • jaydee - Monday, May 15, 2017 - link

    I bought a pair of Samsung Spinpoint F3 1 TB drives in June of 2012, that were second hand. Both still running strong in a RAID-1 NAS.
  • cbm80 - Saturday, May 13, 2017 - link

    Doesn't WD already sell drive-managed SMR drives? Like the 4TB passport?
  • AlphaBlaster - Sunday, May 14, 2017 - link

    It’s been a while since I’ve ranted about something, and my experiences a couple days ago triggered this post. First, a little bit of back story. Less than 3 years ago, I built a small home server that would function as a file and web test server. The storage portion required me to purchase five 3TB SATA hard drives. Being in a redundant RAID array, they simply needed to have agood price to value proposition. With all the online chatter about Western Digital being the highest quality drive manufacturer and all the drive prices being basically the same, I decided to purchase 5 WD drives. So with these new drives and an older WD drive that I grandfathered in from another machine, I assembled a 6 drive array.

    Everything went well until after 3 months the first drive failed. It actually happened right in front of me. I was monitoring the server stats when the IOwait spiked when the server was apparently doing nothing. I checked the logs and found that the drive was refusing commands. Being somewhat annoyed at the infant mortality of the drive, I decided to buy a Hitachi as the replacement. I can’t say exactly why, it might have been a bit more expensive but I don’t remember. About 6 months later, I decided to expand the array to 7 drives and purchased another Hitachi of the same model as the one prior, seeing how it fared so well. Fast forward a year and I was met with another drive failure. This one became interesting. Lastly, just this week I was migrating all the data – in fact the entire array – into another server. This move also included a switch to ZFS from NTFS (no laughing, I needed Windows support). I had to copy the data to offline storage drives, destroy the array metadata, move the drives, assemble the new array, and copy the data back. Sounds easy. I got up to the copying data part without a hitch, but I quickly noticed the data transfer rate was very low – about 1/8th the speed it should have been. I also noticed that the operation was going through a sort of cycle: 30 seconds of transfer, 5 min of idle – however the disk usage light was lit the whole time. After doing some investigating, I found that one drive busy 100% of the time. I tried to get SMART on it using smartctl and the command took almost 10 seconds to return the data. I ripped the drive out and the throughput instantly went back to normal speeds. It was replaced with a Hitachi as before.

    All this may sound like ordinary drive happenings, and that may be the case, but I can’t help but notice that WD drives are among the only ones that have ever failed on me and that being said, I have owned drives from almost every company under the sun. It isn’t just these experiences that led me to my dislike towards thSee company. I find that their products are inferior to other manufacturers. They are larger, louder, produce significantly more heat (which leads to poor energy efficiency), and I have had a few that have had bearings go bad. My spite comes from the countless bad experiences I have had with the company’s products over the last 5 years. I have since switched to all Hitachi drives and have never had a failure. I have one drive for example which has outlived 5 machines (servers and workstations) and is still chugging along. Why could I never get that reliability from WD? At my job I manage over 500 workstations with a good split of WD and Seagate drives. The ones I’m replacing 70% of the time are WDs. Something isn’t quite right.
  • asmian - Sunday, May 14, 2017 - link

    SImple question: did you buy WD RE drives? They are designed for your stated application, with 24/7 availability, higher intrinsic BER value, higher vibration tolerance, and most especially TLER (Time Limited Error Recovery) as default for use in RAID environments (drives drop out gracefully to allow the array redundancy to provide the data without stalling the array, as you describe, continuously trying to retrieve rotten data)...

    It sounds like you did not. Therefore, the issue is that you tried to use cheap consumer drives in an unsuitable environment. If you cheap out, expect unsuitable drives to fail, from whatever company. There is a reason enterprise-rated drives have a higher price - intrinsically better build and greater reliability. Just because RAID originally meant "Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks" doesn't mean that you should go and buy the cheapest possible because RAID is covering your ass mitigating the poor reliability, or fall for the drive company marketing that somehow their "NAS-rated" consumer drives are any different from normal ones, or in the same league as enterprise drives - that's pure bullshit.

    I've never bought (or recommended to consumer clients for builds) anything less than RE disks, always from WD. Apart from one batch of 1TB REs that had unfortunate infant mortality issues, ALL I've personally installed and recommended are still trucking after many years of fully active service. You get what you pay for. The issue isn't generally the brand, it's foolish buyers expecting cheap consumer drives to have the reliability of enterprise drives in 24/7 home servers and high-uptime environments.

    If you are managing 500 obviously important workstations needing good uptime, then I (and your company should) seriously question your competence if you are cheaping out with consumer drives in a business environment. You may save them a little up front but they'll pay far more over time due to the low reliability - that is why you are wasting man-hours replacing so many. THAT is what is not quite right. Brand is almost immaterial in this regard.
  • close - Sunday, May 14, 2017 - link

    It sounds to me like the first part of the story is the "home" part, totally separate from the 500 workstations "work" part.
    Anyway this is anecdotal evidence and it's hard to extrapolate from a relatively small number of drives. For consumer drives Backblaze provides good data. You get to see how consumer drives handle the worst of conditions.
  • HomeworldFound - Sunday, May 14, 2017 - link

    Your experience isn't enough to shun an entire brand and all of their products. There are plenty of these stories for each manufacturer. Why aren't you talking to Western Digital about it? Why are you just replacing drives?

    These days you pick the right drive for the right job with the right warranty.
  • nunya112 - Sunday, May 14, 2017 - link

    I agree WD drives have been the only ones that fail on me. and the exact same thing would happen to mine. it would just sit there on full activity but be doing nothing

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