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Dr. Jimmy Tang male Group Editor

A semiconductor materials engineer who is also into DIY projects, audiophile, World of Warcraft, photography and fine cuisine.

Digital Data Growing At Unprecedented Rate

With so many digital devices adopted by users today, it's not difficult to see that the need for storage is also growing proportionately to the number of devices sold. The real question is, at what rate is data growing and would we be able to store every single piece of information that we've created?

A recent study undertaken by IDC and sponsored by EMC attempts to size up the digital universe by measuring the amount of information that is created and replicated in a year. The study concluded that by 2020 (just 10 years from now), the digital world would have created and replicated digital content to almost an incredible 35 trillion gigabytes. 35 trillion gigabytes = 35,000,000,000,000GB = 35,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes (or just simply 35 Zettabytes). That took me a while to calculate but you can easily see just how much of data that is. To put the sheer volume into context, a Terabyte of storage can hold roughly about 1,000 copies of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and 10 Terabytes could hold the entire Library of Congress. 10 years ago, 10 Terabytes would seem like a lot of data, but today, 4 units of the latest Seagate Barracuda 3TB drives is all it takes to store all of that information (and more) into drives that are no larger than a typical Dan Brown paperback novel. 

Just think about it, the human race is suddenly creating so much data in such a short span of time. What triggered this sudden growth of data? Last year, the Library of Congress announced that the amount of information found on the internet has surpassed the amount of work that has ever been published in the entire human history. Likewise, the amount of video available on the internet today is more than what has been broadcast in the entire history of televisions.

How did this sudden explosion of information occur? 

The clue lies with three key technologies, the internet, advances in device technology and social media. 

The internet is really the key in enabling users to search, retrieve and post new content into the world wide web. Without the internet, data would only be localized within small user groups and shared through physical mediums such as floppy disks. Fortunately, the internet grew to become more connected and faster with the introduction of broadband. Sharing of information is suddenly made so easy for users around the world with megabytes and gigabytes of data transferred between users on a daily basis. The growth of social media (like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc) accelerated the sharing of content and everyone uses these platforms to share high quality content such as high resolution photos and videos. Of course, digital photos and videos would have never been made possible without advances in device technologies that helped enable such applications in a ubiquitous device such as the mobile phone.

Today, the internet has grown in a different direction. Instead of a wired broadband internet through cable or DSL, we have wireless contributing to the main bulk of data traffic. Wireless surfing didn't really take off with WiFi, as much as most people would like you to believe it did. WiFi was more or less localized to coffee joints, airports and certain establishments with each hotspot requiring different logins and payment schemes. It was however useful if one could get connected to it, but loses its appeal when users could not roam with WiFi. Certain telcos attempted to provide WiFi services in certain cities, but coverage wasn't great due to WiFi's short operating distances.

Then came mobile internet on 3G and it revolutionized the entire internet landscape. Users now have the freedom to roam as far as their mobile phone coverage goes. This enabled users to be always connected to the internet wherever they go. Talk to anyone with a 3G mobile phone today and you'll likely find them connected to some form of social network.

All these do contribute to the growth of data but they somehow do not seem to fit into the equation. Although there are now more people connected to the internet than ever before, 35 Zettabytes is really a lot of data. The thing is, most of these data that we'll see in 2020 would not be original content but replicated in some form or another. It's scary to think that suddenly, internet users are compulsive data hoarders - replicating anything and everything they've downloaded. Either that or they are just terribly sloppy at data housekeeping. 

It's really hard to tell if broadband technology could keep up with this explosive growth of data. Most developed countries already have or are rolling out optical fiber technologies in order to boost data bandwidth (in Singapore, we're still waiting for OpenNet to extensively wire up every home). Mobile operators are looking at deploying 4G networks today and maybe 5G in the years to come. Even if networks could handle human's excessive need for bandwidth, do we have enough storage to save every single piece of data generated or replicated? Judging from the rate at which storage technologies are growing, it would be extremely challenging to keep up. And this was confirmed with IDC's data showing that by 2020, if every gigabyte of digital data were to be stored, there would be more than 60% shortfall in available storage.

Now let's all sit back and ask ourselves this question : What kind of digital data have we been generating or replicating today and how much have we already contributed to the entire digital universe?

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