Holy Moly! Western Digital and The New Face of Hard Drives

Western Digital recently introduced its fourth-generation, helium hard drives at the beginning of this year. You probably were to distracted that Trump became the 45th president around that time to notice age-old technology that had little impact on your or anyone’s life.The HGST Ultrastar He12 HDD can store up to 12 TB of data and its version based on shingled magnetic recording technology has a capacity of 14 TB. It is noteworthy that to increase the capacity of the HDD, Western Digital had to increase both the number of platters in the new drives as well as their areal density, whatever the hell that means. Seriously… I was lost after the second word in that sentence.

The HGST Ultrastar He12 is built on a completely new platform featuring eight platters, up from the previous seven used in their old version, which is only relevant and exciting to people who know what the fuck platters are. Western Digital’s HelioSeal technology managed to squeeze eight platters into a 3.5” HDD (which I can only deduce is like squeezing into skinny jeans after Thanksgiving dinner).  I guess in doing so, the memory has increased significantly (of the hard drive, not the woman). To add the eighth platter, Western Digital had to redesign internals of its past HDDs (including arms and heads). Moreover, the company recently said that the HelioSeal is here to stay, even though it’s a dying technology (but, hey, we’re bringing coal back for some inexplicable reason, so why not hard drives?) As demand for high-capacity SSDs grows, the practicality and demand for HDD technology is questionable.

First, it’s important to know the difference between SSDs, HDDs, and STDs  Okay, so the last has nothing to do with this article but is probably an important thing for you to know so I provided this helpful link in case you were confused. For those of you who are tech-stupid (much like myself) anything else I talk about will probably go right over you’re head but I’ll try to trim the fat so you kind of get an understanding.

SSD stands for Solid State Drive and is similar to a USB memory stick. (You remember those right? It’s the thing you put in the side of your computer when you would wait for AOL dial-up to connect.) An SSD can be thought of as an oversized and more sophisticated version of the humble USB. Like a memory stick, there are no moving parts to an SSD; information is stored in microchips. And they are very, very fast.

Hard Disk Drives, or HDD in techno-parlance, were first introduced by IBM in 1956. It uses magnetism to store data on a rotating platter. A read/write head floats above the spinning platter reading and writing data. The faster the platter spins, the faster an HDD can perform. Laptop drives today typically spin at either 5400 or 7200RPM (Revolutions per Minute).

The major advantage of an HDD is that it is capable of storing lots of data very cheaply. These days, 1 TeraByte (1,024 gigabytes) of storage is not uncommon, meaning there is no limit to how much porn and erotica fan fiction you can store. While figuring out the cost per gigabyte is hard to calculate since there are so many classes to consider, it is safe to say most HDDs are substantially cheaper than SSDs. So, if you want cheap storage and lots of it, using a standard hard drive is the more best fit for you.

The increase in the number of platters inside the Ultrastar He12 was not the only change to expand memory; Western Digital also had to increase the areal density of each platter. The Ultrastar He12 with a 12 TB capacity featuring perpendicular magnetic recording technology has an areal density of 864 Gbit/inch2, whereas the Ultrastar He12 with 14 TB capacity and SMR technology has an areal density of around 1000 Gbit/inch2. I’m sure some computer geek is getting a boner reading this while I’m just sitting here trying to figure out if I’m still reading English.

The increase of helium-filled HGST Ultrastar capacity by 20% brings very significant benefits to those who use The Cloud, Drop Box and other sharable, online data storage spaces. For example, each standard server rack can store 2400 TB of data if fully populated with 10 TB HDDs today. If 12 TB hard drives are installed into the same rack, its total storage capacity increases to 2880 TB at the same power and at the same space, which is quite an upgrade.

Moreover, if owners of data centers are willing to alter their applications and add support for SMR management, they can increase the total storage capacity of one rack to 3360 TB without tangible increases in power consumption. The Ultrastar He12 14 TB was designed primarily for archival applications, where data is written sequentially in huge chunks (and is hardly ever updated) and where peculiarities of SMR do not have a significant impact on performance. Archives of social media, multimedia, and personal files rarely get updated and SMR HDDs are perfect for them. A 40% increase of storage capacity in one generation is very substantial for cloud datacenter companies and push them to invest in both hardware and software just to get some extra storage space. The capacity increase over currently used 8 and 10 TB hard drives may make the Ultrastar He12 with 14 TB capacity a more popular product, seeing as their past similar products flopped (pun intended).

Just like in the case of the previous generation Ultrastar He, the new HDD will be available with either a SAS 12 Gb/s and or a SATA 6 Gb/s interface. The Ultrastar He12 14 TB SMR version will be available to select customers only because this is a host-managed SMR HDD that requires applications to manage data transfers between SMR and PMR bands. Typically drives featuring SMR technology manage themselves automatically, which guarantees predictable performance but does not take into account peculiarities of end-users’ applications. Host-managed SMR HDDs rely on software to optimize their performance and/or power consumption.

Other specifications of the HGST Ultrastar He12 12TB model resemble those of current-gen helium-filled enterprise-grade HDDs: the new drives feature 7200 RPM spindle speed, a 256 MB data buffer, a sustained transfer rate of up to 255 MB/s as well as an average latency of 4.16 ms. Power consumption of the 12TB model using SATA is set to be up to 7.2 W, whereas power consumption of the SAS model will be up to 9.8 W.

When it comes to the next step for all HDD makers, the industry insiders consider HAMR as the most important technology transition for hard drives of the decade. HDD manufacturers hope to commercialize HAMR-based drives over the next couple of years, but are reluctant to disclose exact capacity points of technical aspects. Back in November, the CFO of Seagate said that it could make financial sense to start HAMR roll-out with 16 TB models.

Due to the increased number of components and usage of new materials, HAMR-based hard drives are expected to cost more than traditional HDDs in terms of manufacturing, which likely means that they will carry higher price tags as well. In a bid to make HAMR drives appealing to the customers, HDD makers will have to maintain their per-GB costs and performance at the levels of currently available HDDs. This is why companies like Seagate consider 16 TB as a right capacity point for the initial HAMR-based offerings.

Right now, the mention of the 16 TB capacity sounds more like a consideration rather than a commitment, meaning one of these companies might come to their senses and realize the supply and demand for this aged niche just is not there.  But maybe I’m wrong.  I also never though fidget spinners would take off and now, here we are.

Now, while 16 TB is a hypothetical figure at the moment, if HDD makers manage to release such drives in 2018 (this year has long been discussed as the launch timeframe for commercial HAMR HDDs), they will offer tangible capacity upgrades to those, who use 10 TB drives now or plan to deploy 12 TB HDDs next year. The ability to store 3840 TB of data per rack sounds plausible for those, who use leading-edge PMR-based HDDs, but those with 14 TB SMR HDDs may be less interested in such an upgrade (especially given their investments in SMR).

In short, (yeah I know it’s too late for that), it looks like the HGST Ultrastar He12 HDDs as well as competing hard drive companies could be the highest capacity offerings from Western Digital before HAMR-based HDDs arrive over the next couple of years (yet, something tells me that these are not going to be the highest-capacity non-HAMR HDDs ever). Since it takes time to qualify new drives for data centers and transition to HAMR HDDs is not going to happen overnight, it looks like the Ultrastar He12 drives have a long lifespan ahead of them.  You know, kind of like Mick Jagger.

Editor’s note: In 1994, for a government project, I bought a platter system the size of a small refrigerator that could store 100 Gbytes, for about $100,00.  Now I can buy a 128 Gbyte memory stick for about $36.

12 Terabytes is enough to store all of the print volumes of the Library of Congress.

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