The End of Online Storage: Coming Soon
New study says that we're running out of storage for all that online information.
(Boston) A new study that estimates how much digital information the
world is generating (hint: a lot) finds that for the first time, there's
not enough storage space to hold it all. Good thing we delete some stuff.
The report, assembled by the technology research firm IDC,
sought to account for all the ones and zeros that make up photos, videos,
e-mails, Web pages, instant messages, phone calls and other digital content
zipping around. The researchers also assumed that on average, each digital
file gets replicated three times.
Add it all up and IDC determined that the world generated 161 billion
gigabytes -- 161 exabytes -- of digital information last year.
Oh, the equivalents! That's like 12 stacks of books that each reach from
the Earth to the sun. Or you might think of it as 3 million times the
information in all the books ever written, according to IDC. You'd need
more than 2 billion of the most capacious iPods on the market to get 161
The previous best estimate came from researchers at the University of
California, Berkeley, who totaled the globe's information production at
5 exabytes in 2003.
report followed a different trail. It included non-electronic information,
such as analog radio broadcasts or printed office memos, and tallied how
much space that would consume if digitized. And it counted original data
only, not all the times things got copied.
In comparison, the IDC numbers were made much higher by including content
as it was created and as it was reproduced -- for example, as a digital
TV file was made and every time it landed on a screen. If IDC tracked
original data only, its result would have been 40 exabytes.
Still, even the 2003 figure of 5 exabytes is enormous -- it was said at
the time to be 37,000 Libraries of Congress -- so why does it matter how
much more enormous the number is now?
For one thing, said IDC analyst John Gantz, it's important to understand
the effects of the factors behind the information explosion -- such as
the profusion of surveillance cameras and regulatory rules for corporate
In fact, the supply of data technically outstrips the supply of places
to put it.
IDC estimates that the world had 185 exabytes of storage available last
year and will have 601 exabytes in 2010. But the amount of stuff generated
is expected to jump from 161 exabytes last year to 988 exabytes (closing
in on 1 zettabyte) in 2010.
"If you had a run on the bank, you'd be in trouble," Gantz
said. "If everybody stored every digital bit, there wouldn't be enough
Fortunately, storage space is not actually scarce and continues to get
cheaper. That's because not everything gets warehoused. Not only do e-mails
get deleted, but some digital signals are not made to linger, like the
contents of phone calls. (Although, who's to say those conversations don't
get catalogued someplace, perhaps the National Security Agency? The IDC
researchers assumed the answer was no. "I don't want men in black
coming to look for me," Gantz joked.)
But even if the IDC findings don't raise the prospect that disk drives
will be virtually bursting at the seams, the study has intriguing implications.
Among them: We'll need better technologies to help secure, parse, find
and recover usable material in this universe of data.
Chuck Hollis, vice president of technology alliances at EMC Corp., the
data-management company that sponsored the IDC research and the earlier
Berkeley studies, said the new report made him wonder whether enough is
being done to save the digital data for posterity.
"Someone has to make a decision about what to store and what not,"
Hollis said. "How do we preserve our heritage? Who's responsible
for keeping all of this stuff around so our kids can look at it, so historians
can look at it? It's not clear."